Chapter XVI. A Headquarters Conference
 

By the time she had been admitted to Eldrick's private room, Nesta had regained her composure; she had also had time to think, and her present action was the result of at any rate a part of her thoughts. She was calm and collected enough when she took the chair which the solicitor drew forward.

"I called on you for two reasons, Mr. Eldrick," she said. "First, to thank you for your kindness and thoughtfulness at the time of my brother's death, in sending your clerk to help in making the arrangements."

"Very glad he was of any assistance, Miss Mallathorpe," answered Eldrick. "I thought, of course, that as he had been on the spot, as it were, when the accident happened, he could do a few little things----"

"He was very useful in that way," said Nesta. "And I was very much obliged to him. But the second reason for my call is--I want to speak to you about him."

"Yes?" responded Eldrick. He had already formed some idea as to what was in his visitor's mind, and he was secretly glad of the opportunity of talking to her. "About Pratt, eh? What about him, Miss Mallathorpe?"

"He was with you for some years, I believe?" she asked.

"A good many years," answered Eldrick. "He came to us as office-boy, and was head-clerk when he left us."

"Then you ought to know him--well," she suggested.

"As to that," replied Eldrick, "there are some people in this world whom other people never could know well--that's to say, really well. I know Pratt well enough for what he was--our clerk. Privately, I know little about him. He's clever--he's ability--he's a chap who reads a good deal--he's got ambitions. And I should say he is a bit--subtle."

"Deceitful?" she asked.

"I couldn't say that," replied Eldrick. "It wouldn't be true if I said so. I think he's possibilities of strategy in him. But so far as we're concerned, we found him hardworking, energetic, truthful, dependable and honest, and absolutely to be trusted in money matters. He's had many and many a thousand pounds of ours through his hands."

"I believe you're unaware that my mother, for some reason or other, unknown to me, has put him in charge of her affairs?" asked Nesta.

"Yes--Mr. Collingwood told me so," answered Eldrick. "So, too, did your own solicitor, Mr. Robson--who's very angry about it."

"And you?" she said, putting a direct question. "What do you think? Do please, tell me!"

"It's difficult to say, Miss Mallathorpe," replied Eldrick, with a smile and a shake of the head. "If your mother--who, of course, is quite competent to decide for herself--wishes to have somebody to look after her affairs, I don't see what objection can be taken to her procedure. And if she chooses to put Linford Pratt in that position--why not? As I tell you, I, as his last--and only--employer, am quite convinced of his abilities and probity. I suppose that as your mother's agent, he'll supervise her property, collect money due to her, advise her in investments, and so on. Well, I should say--personally, mind--he's quite competent to do all that, and that he'll do it honestly, I should certainly say so."

"But--why should he do it at all?" asked Nesta.

Eldrick waved his hands.

"Ah!" he exclaimed. "Now you ask me a very different question! But--I understand--in fact, I know--that Pratt turns out to be a relation of yours--distant, but it's there. Perhaps your mother--who, of course, is much better off since your brother's sad death--is desirous of benefiting Pratt--as a relation."

"Do you advise anything?" asked Nesta.

"Well, you know, Miss Mallathorpe," replied Eldrick, smiling. "I'm not your legal adviser. What about Mr. Robson?"

"Mr. Robson is so very angry about all this--with my mother," said Nesta, "that I don't even want to ask his advice. What I really do want is the advice, counsel, of somebody--perhaps more as a friend than as a solicitor."

"Delighted to give you any help I can--either professionally or as a friend," exclaimed Eldrick. "But--let me suggest something. And first of all--is there anything--something--in all this that you haven't told to anybody yet?"

"Yes--much!" she answered. "A great deal!"

"Then," said Eldrick, "let me advise a certain counsel. Two heads are better than one. Let me ask Mr. Collingwood to come here."

He was watching his visitor narrowly as he said this, and he saw a faint rise of colour in her cheeks. But for the moment she did not answer, and Eldrick saw that she was thinking.

"I can get him across from his chambers in a few minutes," he said. "He's sure to be in just now."

"Can I have a few minutes to decide?" asked Nesta.

Eldrick jumped up.

"Of course!" he said. "I'll leave you a while. It so happens I want to see my partner, I'll go up to his room, and return to you presently."

Nesta, left alone, gave herself up to deep thought, and to a careful reckoning of her position. She was longing to confide in some trustworthy person or persons, for Pratt's revelations had plunged her into a maze of perplexity. But her difficulties were many. First of all, she would have to tell all about the terrible charge brought by Pratt against her mother. Then about the second which he professed to--or probably did--hold. What sort of a secret could it be? And supposing her advisers suggested strong measures against Pratt--what then, about the danger to her mother, in a twofold direction?

Would it be better, wiser, if she kept all this to herself at present, and waited for events to develop? But at the mere thought of that, she shrank, feeling mentally and physically afraid--to keep all that knowledge to herself, to brood over it in secret, to wonder what it all meant, what lay beneath, what might develop, that was more than she felt able to bear. And when Eldrick came back she looked at him and nodded.

"I should like to talk to you and Mr. Collingwood," she said quietly.

Collingwood came across to Eldrick's office at once. And to these two Nesta unbosomed herself of every detail that she could remember of her interview with Pratt--and as she went on, from one thing to another, she saw the men's faces grow graver and graver, and realized that this was a more anxious matter than she had thought.

"That's all," she said in the end. "I don't think I've forgotten anything. And even now, I don't know if I've done right to tell you all this. But--I don't think I could have faced it--alone!"

"My dear Miss Mallathorpe!" said Eldrick earnestly. "You've done the wisest thing you probably ever did in your life! Now," he went on, looking at Collingwood, "just let us all three realize what is to me a more important fact. Nobody would be more astonished than Pratt to know that you have taken the wise step you have. You agree, Collingwood?"

"Yes!" answered Collingwood, after a moment's reflection. "I think so."

"Miss Mallathorpe doesn't quite see what we mean," said Eldrick, turning to Nesta. "We mean that Pratt firmly believed, when he told you what he did, that for your mother's sake and your own, you would keep his communication a dead secret. He firmly believed that you would never dare to tell anybody what he told you. Most people--in your position--wouldn't have told. They'd have let the secret eat their lives out. You're a wise and a sensible young woman! And the thing is--we must let Pratt remain under the impression that you are keeping your knowledge to yourself. Let him continue to believe that you'll remain silent under fear. And let us meet his secret policy with a secret strategy of our own!"

Again he glanced at Collingwood, and again Collingwood nodded assent.

"Now," continued Eldrick, "just let us consider matters for a few minutes from the position which has newly arisen. To begin with. Pratt's account of your mother's dealings about the foot-bridge is a very clever and plausible one. I can see quite well that it has caused you great pain; so before I go any further, just let me say this to you--don't you attach one word of importance to it!"

Nesta uttered a heartfelt cry of relief.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "If you knew how thankful I should be to know that it's all lies--that he was lying! Can I really think that--after what I saw?"

"I won't ask you to think that he's telling lies--just now," answered Eldrick, with a glance at Collingwood, "but I'll ask you to believe that your mother could put a totally different aspect and complexion on all her actions and words in connection with the entire affair. My impression, of course," he went on, with something very like a wink at Collingwood, "is that Mrs. Mallathorpe, when she wrote that letter to Pratt, intended to have the bridge mended first thing next morning, and that something prevented that being done, and that when she was seen about the shrubberies in the afternoon, she was on her way to meet Pratt before he could reach the dangerous point, so that she could warn him. What do you say, Collingwood?"

"I should say," answered Collingwood, regarding the solicitor earnestly, and speaking with great gravity of manner, "that that would make an admirable line of defence to any charge which Pratt was wicked enough to prefer."

"You don't think my mother meant--meant to----" exclaimed Nesta, eagerly turning from one man to the other. "You--don't?"

"There is no evidence worth twopence against your mother!" replied Eldrick soothingly. "Put everything that Pratt has said against her clear out of your mind. Put all recent events out of your mind! Don't interfere with Pratt--just now. The thing to be done about Pratt is this--and it's the only thing. We must find out--exactly, as secretly as possible--what this secret is of which he speaks. What is this hold on Mrs. Mallathorpe? What is this document to which he refers? In other words, we must work back to some point which at present we can't see. At least, I can't see it. But--we may discover it. What do you say, Collingwood?"

"I agree entirely," answered Collingwood. "Let Pratt rest in his fancied security. The thing is, certainly, to go back. But--to what point?"

"That we must consider later," said Eldrick. "Now--for the present, Miss Mallathorpe,--you are, I suppose, going back home?"

"Yes, at once," answered Nesta. "I have my car at the Crown Hotel."

"I should just like to know something," continued Eldrick again, looking at Collingwood as if for approval. "That is--Mrs. Mallathorpe's present disposition towards affairs in general and Pratt in particular. Miss Mallathorpe!--just do something which I will now suggest to you. When you reach home, see your mother--she is still, I understand, an invalid, though evidently able to transact business. Just approach her gently and kindly, and tell her that you are a little--should we say uncomfortable?--about certain business arrangements which you hear she has made with Mr. Pratt, and ask her, if she won't talk them over with you, and give you her full confidence. It's now half-past twelve," continued Eldrick, looking at his watch. "You'll be home before lunch. See your mother early in the afternoon, and then telephone, briefly, the result to me, here, at four o'clock. Then--Mr. Collingwood and I will have a consultation."

He motioned Collingwood to remain where he was, and himself saw Nesta down to the street. When he came back to his room he shook his head at the young barrister.

"Collingwood!" he said. "There's some dreadful business afloat in all this! And it's all the worse because of the fashion in which Pratt talked to that girl. She's evidently a very good memory--she narrated that conversation clearly and fully. Pratt must be very sure of his hand if he showed her his cards in that way--his very confidence in himself shows what a subtle network he's either made or is making. I question if he'd very much care if he knew that we know. But he mustn't know that--yet. We must reply to his mine with a counter-mine!"

"What do you think of Pratt's charge against Mrs. Mallathorpe?" asked Collingwood.

Eldrick made a wry face.

"Looks bad!--very, very bad, Collingwood!" he answered. "Art and scheme of a desperate woman, of course. But--we mustn't let her daughter think we believe it. Let her stick to the suggestion I made--which, as you remarked, would certainly make a very good line of defence, supposing Pratt even did accuse her. But now--what on earth is this document that's been mentioned--this paper of which Pratt has possession? Has Mrs. Mallathorpe at some time committed forgery--or bigamy--or--what is it? One thing's sure, however--we've got to work quietly. We mustn't let Pratt know that we're working. I hope he doesn't know that Miss Mallathorpe came here. Will you come back about four and hear what message she sends me? After that, we could consult."

Collingwood went away to his chambers. He was much occupied just then, and had little time to think of anything but the work in hand. But as he ate his lunch at the club which he had joined on settling in Barford, he tried to get at some notion of the state of things, and once more his mind reverted to the time of his grandfather's death, and his own suspicions about Pratt at that period. Clearly that was a point to which they must hark back--he himself must make more inquiries about the circumstances of Antony Bartle's last hours. For this affair would not have to rest where it was--it was intolerable that Nesta Mallathorpe should in any way be under Pratt's power. He went back to Eldrick at four o'clock with a suggestion or two in his mind. And at the sight of him Eldrick shook his head.

"I've had that telephone message from Normandale," he said, "five minutes ago. Pretty much what I expected--at this juncture, anyway. Mrs. Mallathorpe absolutely declines to talk business with even her daughter at present--and earnestly desires that Mr. Linford Pratt may be left alone."

"Well?" asked Collingwood after a pause. "What now?"

"We must do what we can--secretly, privately, for the daughter's sake," said Eldrick. "I confess I don't quite see a beginning, but----"

Just then the private door opened, and Pascoe, a somewhat lackadaisical-mannered man, who always looked half-asleep, and was in reality remarkably wide-awake, lounged in, nodded to Collingwood, and threw a newspaper in front of his partner.

"I say, Eldrick," he drawled, as he removed a newly-lighted cigar from his lips. "There's an advertisement here which seems to refer to that precious protege of yours, who left you with such scant ceremony. Same name, anyhow!"

Eldrick snatched up the paper, glanced at it and read a few words aloud.

"INFORMATION WANTED about James Parrawhite, at one time in practice as a solicitor."