Chapter XVII. Advertisement

Eldrick looked up at his partner with a sharp, confirmatory glance.

"That's our Parrawhite, of course!" he said. "Who's after him, now?" And he went on to read the rest of the advertisement, murmuring its phraseology half-aloud: "'in practice as a solicitor at Nottingham and who left that town six years ago. If the said James Parrawhite will communicate with the undersigned he will hear something greatly to his advantage. Any person able to give information as to his whereabouts will be suitably rewarded. Apply to Halstead & Byner, 56B, St. Martin's Chambers, London, W.C.' Um!--Pascoe, hand over that Law List."

Collingwood looked on in silence while Eldrick turned over the pages of the big book which his partner took down from a shelf. He wondered at Eldrick's apparent and almost eager interest.

"Halstead & Byner are not solicitors," announced Eldrick presently. "They must be inquiry agents or something of that sort. Anyway, I'll write to them, Pascoe, at once."

"You don't know where the fellow is," said Pascoe. "What's the good?"

"No--but we know where he last was," retorted Eldrick. He turned to Collingwood as the junior partner sauntered out of the room. "Rather odd that Pascoe should draw my attention to that just now," he remarked. "This man Parrawhite was, in a certain sense, mixed up with Pratt--at least, Pratt and I are the only two people who know the secret of Parrawhite's disappearance from these offices. That was just about the time of your grandfather's death."

Collingwood immediately became attentive. His first suspicions of Pratt were formed at the time of which Eldrick spoke, and any reference to events contemporary excited his interest.

"Who was or is--this man you're talking of?" he asked.

"Bad lot--very!" answered Eldrick, shaking his head. "He and I were articled together, at the same time, to the same people: we saw a lot of each other as fellow articled clerks. He afterwards practised in Nottingham, and he held some good appointments. But he'd a perfect mania for gambling--the turf--and he went utterly wrong, and misappropriated clients' money, and in the end he got into prison, and was, of course, struck off the rolls. I never heard anything of him for years, and then one day, some time ago, he turned up here and begged me to give him a job. I did--and I'll do him the credit to say that he earned his money. But--in the end, his natural badness broke out. One afternoon--I'm careless about some things--I left some money lying in this drawer--about forty pounds in notes and gold--and next morning Parrawhite never came to business. We've never seen or heard of him since."

"You mentioned Pratt," said Collingwood.

"Only Pratt and I know--about the money," replied Eldrick. "We kept it secret--I didn't want Pascoe to know I'd been so careless. Pascoe didn't like Parrawhite--and he doesn't know his record. I only told him that Parrawhite was a chap I'd known in better circumstances and wanted to give a hand to."

"You said it was about the time of my grandfather's death?" asked Collingwood.

"It was just about then--between his death and his funeral I should say," answered Eldrick, "The two events are associated in my mind. Anyway, I'd like to know what it is that these people want Parrawhite for. If it's money that's come to him, it'll be of no advantage--it'll only go where all the rest's gone."

Collingwood lost interest in Parrawhite. Parrawhite appeared to have nothing to do with the affairs in which he was interested. He sat down and began to tell Eldrick about his own suspicions of Pratt at the time of Antony Bartle's death; of what Jabey Naylor had told him about the paper taken from the History of Barford; of the lad's account of the old man's doings immediately afterwards; and of his own proceedings which had led him to believe for the time being that his suspicions were groundless.

"But now," he went on, "a new idea occurs to me. Suppose that that paper, found by my grandfather in a book which had certainly belonged to the late John Mallathorpe, was something important relating to Mrs. Mallathorpe? Suppose that my grandfather brought it across here to you? Suppose that finding you out, he showed it to Pratt? As my grandfather died suddenly, with nobody but Pratt there, what was there to prevent Pratt from appropriating that paper if he saw that it would give him a hold over Mrs. Mallathorpe? We know now that he has some document in his possession which does give him a hold--may it not be that of which the boy Naylor told me?"

"Might be," agreed Eldrick. "But--my opinion is, taking things all together, that the paper which Antony Bartle found was the one you yourself discovered later--the list of books. No--I'll tell you what I think. I believe that the document which Pratt told Miss Mallathorpe he holds, and to which her mother referred in the letter asking Pratt to meet her, is probably--most probably!--one which he discovered in searching out his relationship to Mrs. Mallathorpe. He's a cute chap--and he may have found some document which--well, I'll tell you what it might be--something which would upset the rights of Harper Mallathorpe to his uncle's estates. No other relatives came forward, or were heard of, or were discoverable when John Mallathorpe was killed in that chimney accident; but there may be some--there may be one in particular. That's my notion!--and I intend, in the first place, to make a personal search of the parish registers from which Pratt got his information. He may have discovered something there which he's keeping to himself."

"You think that is the course to adopt?" asked Collingwood, after a moment's reflection.

"At present--yes," replied Eldrick. "And while I'm making it--I'll do it myself--we'll just go on outwardly--as if nothing had happened. If I meet Pratt--as I shall--I shall not let him see that I know anything. Do you go on in just the usual way. Go out to Normandale Grange now and then--and tell Miss Mallathorpe to think no more of her interview with Pratt until we've something to talk to her about. You talk to her about--something else."

When Collingwood had left him Eldrick laid a telegram form on his plotting pad, and after a brief interval of thought wrote out a message addressed to the people whose advertisement had attracted Pascoe's attention.

"HALSTEAD & BYNER, 56B, St. Martin's Chambers, London, W.C.

"I can give you definite information concerning James Parrawhite if you will send representative to see me personally.

"CHARLES ELDRICK, Eldrick & Pascoe, Solicitors, Barford."

After Eldrick had sent off a clerk with this message to the nearest telegraph office, he sat thinking for some time. And at the close of his meditations, and after some turning over of a diary which lay on his desk, he picked up pen and paper, and drafted an advertisement of his own.

"TEN POUNDS REWARD will be paid to any person who can give reliable and useful information as to James Parrawhite, who until November last was a clerk in the employ of Messrs. Eldrick & Pascoe, Solicitors, Barford, and who is believed to have left the town on the evening of November 23.--Apply to Mr. CHARLES ELDRICK, of the above firm."

"Worth risking ten pounds on--anyway," muttered Eldrick. "Whether these London people will cover it or not. Here!" he went on, turning to a clerk who had just entered the room. "Make three copies of this advertisement, and take one to each of the three newspaper offices, and tell 'em to put it in their personal column tonight."

He sat musing for some time after he was left alone again, and when he at last rose, it was with a shake of the head.

"I wonder if Pratt told me the truth that morning?" he said to himself. "Anyway, he's now being proved to be even deeper than I'd ever considered him. Well--other folk than Pratt are possessed of pretty good wits."

Before he left the office that evening Eldrick was handed a telegram from Messrs. Halstead & Byner, of St. Martin's Chambers, informing him that their Mr. Byner would travel to Barford by the first express next morning, and would call upon him at eleven o'clock.

"Then they have some important news for Parrawhite," mused Eldrick, as he put the message in his pocket and went off to his club. "Inquiry agents don't set off on long journeys at a moment's notice for a matter of a trifling agency. But--where is Parrawhite?"

He awaited the arrival of Mr. Byner next morning with considerable curiosity. And soon after eleven there was shown in to him, a smart, well-dressed, alert-looking young man, who, having introduced himself as Mr. Gerald Byner, immediately plunged into business.

"You can tell me something of James Parrawhite, Mr. Eldrick?" he began. "We shall be glad--we've been endeavouring to trace him for some months. It's odd that you didn't see our advertisement before."

"I don't look at that sort of advertisement," replied Eldrick. "I believe it was by mere accident that my partner saw yours yesterday afternoon. But now, a question or two first. What are you--inquiry agents?"

"Just so, sir--inquiry agents--with a touch of private detective business," answered Mr. Gerald Byner with a smile. "We undertake to find people, to watch people, to recover lost property, and so on. In this case we're acting for Messrs. Vickers, Marshall & Hebbleton, Solicitors, of Cannon Street. They want James Parrawhite badly."

"Why?" asked Eldrick.

"Because," replied Byner with a dry laugh, "there's about twenty thousand pounds waiting for him, in their hands."

Eldrick whistled with astonishment.

"Whew!" he said. "Twenty thousand--for Parrawhite! My good sir--if that's so, and if, as you say, you've been advertising----"

"Advertising in several papers," interrupted Byner. "Dailies, weeklies, provincials. Never had one reply, till your wire."

"Then--Parrawhite must be dead!" said Eldrick. "Or--in gaol, under another name. Twenty thousand pounds--waiting for Parrawhite! If Parrawhite was alive, man, or at liberty, he wouldn't let twenty thousand pence wait five minutes! I know him!"

"What can you tell me, Mr. Eldrick?" asked the inquiry agent.

Eldrick told all he knew--concealing nothing. And Byner listened silently and eagerly.

"There's something strikes me at once," he said. "You say that with him disappeared three or four ten-pound notes of yours. Have you the numbers of those notes?"

"I can't say," replied Eldrick, doubtfully. "I haven't, certainly. But--they were paid in to our head-clerk, Pratt, and I think he used to enter such things in a sort of day-ledger. I'll get it."

He went into the clerks' office and presently returned with an oblong, marble-backed book which he began to turn over.

"This may be what you ask about," he said at last. "Here, under date November 23, are some letters and figures which obviously refer to bank-notes. You can copy them if you like."

"Another question, Mr. Eldrick," remarked Byner as he made a note of the entries. "You say some cheque forms were abstracted from a book of yours at the same time. Have you ever heard of any of these cheque forms being made use of?"

"Never!" replied Eldrick.

"No forgery of your name or anything?" suggested the caller.

"No," said Eldrick. "There's been nothing of that sort."

"I can soon ascertain if these bank-notes have reached the Bank of England," said Byner. "That's a simple matter. Now suppose they haven't!"

"Well?" asked Eldrick.

"You know, of course," continued Byner, "that it doesn't take long for a Bank of England note, once issued, to get back to the Bank? You know, too, that it's never issued again. Now if those notes haven't been presented at the Bank--where are they? And if no use has been made of your stolen cheques--where are they?"

"Good!" agreed Eldrick. "I see that you ought to do well in your special line of business. Now--are you going to pursue inquiries for Parrawhite here in Barford, after what I've told you?"

"Certainly!" said Byner. "I came down prepared to stop awhile. It's highly important that this man should be found--highly important," he added smiling, "to other people than Parrawhite himself."

"In what way?" asked Eldrick.

"Why," replied Byner, "if he's dead--as he may be--this money goes to somebody else--a relative. The relative would be very glad to hear he is dead! But--definite news will be welcome, in any case. Oh, yes, now that I've got down here, I shall do my best to trace him. You have the address of the woman he lodged with, you say. I shall go there first, of course. Then I must try to find out what he did with himself in his spare time. But, from all you tell me, it's my impression he's dead--unless, as you say, he's got into prison again--possibly under another name. It seems impossible that he should not have seen our advertisements."

"You never advertised in any Yorkshire newspapers?" asked Eldrick.

"No," said Byner. "Because we'd no knowledge of his having come so far North. We advertised in the Midland papers. But then, all the London papers, daily and weekly, that we used come down to Yorkshire."

"Parrawhite," said Eldrick reflectively, "was a big newspaper reader. He used to go to the Free Library reading-room a great deal. I begin to think he must certainly be dead--or locked up. However, in supplement of your endeavours, I did a little work of my own last night. There you are!" he went on, picking up the local papers and handing them over. "I put that in--we'll see if any response comes. But now a word, Mr. Byner, since you've come to me. You have heard me mention my late clerk--Pratt?"

"Yes," answered Byner.

"Pratt has left us, and is in business as a sort of estate agent in the next street," continued Eldrick. "Now I have particular reasons--most particular reasons!--why Pratt should remain in absolute ignorance of your presence in the town. If you should happen to come across him--as you may, for though there are a quarter of a million of us here, it's a small place, compared with London--don't let him know your business."

"I'm not very likely to do that, Mr. Eldrick," remarked Byner quietly.

"Aye, but you don't take my meaning," said Eldrick eagerly. "I mean this--it's just possible that Pratt may see that advertisement of yours, and that he may write to your firm. In that case, as he's here, and you're here, your partner would send his letter to you. Don't deal with it--here. Don't--if you should come across Pratt, even let him know your name!"

"When I've a job of this sort," replied Byner, "I don't let anybody know my name--except people like you. When I register at one of your hotels presently, I shall be Mr. Black of London. But--if this Pratt wanted to give any information about Parrawhite, he'd give it to you, surely, now that you've advertised."

"No, he wouldn't!" asserted Eldrick. "Why? Because he's told me all he knows--or says he knows--already!"

The inquiry agent looked keenly at the solicitor for a moment during which they both kept silence. Then Byner smiled.

"You said--'or says he knows,'" he remarked. "Do you think he didn't tell the truth about Parrawhite?"

"I should say--now--it's quite likely he didn't," answered Eldrick. "The truth is, I'm making some inquiry myself about Pratt--and I don't want this to interfere with it. You keep me informed of what you find out, and I'll help you all I can while you're here. It may be----"

A clerk came into the room and looked at his master.

"Mr. George Pickard, of the Green Man at Whitcliffe, sir," he said.

"Well?" asked Eldrick.

"Wants to see you about that advertisement in the paper this morning, sir," continued the clerk.

Eldrick looked at Byner and smiled significantly. Then he turned towards the door.

"Bring Mr. Pickard in," he said.