Chapter XVIII. The Confiding Landlord
 

The clerk presently ushered in a short, thick-set, round-faced man, apparently of thirty to thirty-five years of age, whose chief personal characteristics lay in a pair of the smallest eyes ever set in a human countenance and a mere apology for a nose. But both nose and eyes combined somehow to communicate an idea of profound inquiry as the round face in which they were placed turned from the solicitor to the man from London, and a podgy forefinger was lifted to a red forehead.

"Servant, gentlemen," said the visitor. "Fine morning for the time of year!"

"Take a chair, Mr. Pickard," replied Eldrick. "Let me see--from the Green Man, at Whitcliffe, I believe?"

"Landlord, sir--had that house a many years," answered Pickard, as he took a seat near the wall. "Seven year come next Michaelmas, any road."

"Just so--and you want to see me about the advertisement in this morning's paper?" continued Eldrick. "What about it--now?"

The landlord looked at Eldrick and then at Eldrick's companion. The solicitor understood that look: it meant that what his caller had to say was of a private nature.

"It's all right, Mr. Pickard," he remarked reassuringly. "This gentleman is here on just the same business--whatever you say will be treated as confidential--it'll go no further. You've something to tell about my late clerk, James Parrawhite."

Pickard, who had been nervously fingering a white billycock hat, now put it down on the floor and thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers as if to keep them safe while he talked.

"It's like this here," he answered. "When I saw that there advertisement in the paper this mornin', says I to my missus, 'I'll away,' I says, 'an' see Lawyer Eldrick about that there, this very day!' 'Cause you see, Mr. Eldrick, there is summat as I can tell about yon man 'at you mention--James Parrawhite. I've said nowt about it to nobody, up to now, 'cause it were private business atween him and me, as it were, but I lost money over it, and of course, ten pound is ten pound, gentlemen."

"Quite so," agreed Eldrick, "And you shall have your ten pounds if you can tell anything useful."

"I don't know owt about it's being useful, sir, nor what use is to be made on it," said Pickard, "but I can tell you a bit o' truth, and you can do what you like wi' what I tell. But," he went on, lowering his voice and glancing at the door by which he had just entered, "there's another name 'at 'll have to be browt in--private, like. Name, as it so happens, o' one o' your clerks--t' head clerk, I'm given to understand--Mr. Pratt."

Eldrick showed no sign of surprise. But he continued to look significantly at Byner as he turned to the landlord.

"Mr. Pratt has left me," he said. "Left me three weeks ago. So you needn't be afraid, Mr. Pickard--say anything you like."

"Oh, I didn't know," remarked Pickard. "It's not oft that I come down in t' town, and we don't hear much Barford news up our way. Well, it's this here, Mr. Eldrick--you know where my place is, of course?"

Eldrick nodded, and turned to Byner.

"I'd better explain to you," he said. "Whitcliffe is an outlying part of the town, well up the hills--a sort of wayside hamlet with a lot of our famous stone quarries in its vicinity. The Green Man, of which our friend here is the landlord, is an old-fashioned tavern by the roadside--where people are rather fond of dropping in on a Sunday, I fancy, eh, Mr. Pickard?"

"You're right, sir," replied the landlord. "It makes a nice walk out on a Sunday. And it were on a Sunday, too, 'at I got to know this here James Parrawhite as you want to know summat about. He began coming to my place of a Sunday evenin', d'ye see, gentlemen?--he'd walk across t' valley up there to Whitcliffe and stop an hour or two, enjoyin' hisself. Well, now, as you're no doubt well aweer, Mr. Eldrick, he were a reight hand at talkin', were yon Parrawhite--he'd t' gift o' t' gab reight enough, and talked well an' all. And of course him an' me, we hed bits o' conversation at times, 'cause he come to t' house reg'lar and sometimes o' week-nights an' all. An' he tell'd me 'at he'd had a deal o' experience i' racin' matters--whether it were true or not, I couldn't say, but----"

"True enough!" said Eldrick. "He had."

"Well, so he said," continued Pickard, "and he was allus tellin' me 'at he could make a pile o' brass on t' turf if he only had capital. An' i' t' end, he persuaded me to start what he called investin' money with him i' that way--i' plain language, it meant givin' him brass to put on horses 'at he said was goin' to win, d'ye understand?"

"Perfectly," replied Eldrick. "You gave him various amounts which he was to stake for you."

"Just so, sir! And at first," said Pickard, with a shake of the head, "at first I'd no great reason to grumble. He cert'ny wor a good hand at spottin' a winner. But as time went on, I' t' greatest difficulty in gettin' a settlement wi' him, d'ye see? He wor just as good a hand at makin' excuses as he wor at pickin' out winners--better, I think! I nivver knew wheer I was wi' him--he'd pay up, and then he'd persuade me to go in for another do wi' t' brass I'd won, and happen we should lose that time, and then of course we had to hev another investment to get back what we'd dropped, and so it went on. But t' end wor this here--last November theer wor about fifty to sixty pound o' mine i' his hands, and I wanted it. I'd a spirit merchant's bill to settle, and I wanted t' brass badly for that. I knew Parrawhite had been paid, d'ye see, by t' turf agent, 'at he betted wi', and I plagued him to hand t' brass over to me. He made one excuse and then another--howsumivver, it come to that very day you're talkin' about i' your advertisement, Mr. Eldrick--the twenty-third o' November----"

"Stop a minute, Mr. Pickard," interrupted Eldrick. "Now, how do you know--for a certainty--that this day you're going to talk about was the twenty-third of November?"

The landlord, who had removed his hands from his pockets, and was now twiddling a pair of fat thumbs as he talked, chuckled slyly.

"For a very good reason," he answered. "I had to pay that spirit bill I tell'd about just now on t' twenty-fourth, and that I'm going to tell you happened t' night afore t' twenty-fourth, so of course it were t' twenty-third. D'ye see?"

"I see," asserted Eldrick. "That'll do! And now--what did happen?"

"This here," replied Pickard. "On that night--t' twenty-third November--Parrawhite came into t' Green Man at about, happen, half-past eight. He come into t' little private parlour to me, bold as brass--as indeed, he allers wor. 'Ye're a nice un!' I says. 'I've written yer three letters durin' t' last week, and ye've nivver answered one o' 'em!' 'I've come to answer i' person,' he says. 'There's nobbut one answer I want,' says I. 'Wheer's my money?' 'Now then, be quiet a bit,' he says. 'You shall have your money before the evening's over,' he says. 'Or, if not, as soon as t' banks is open tomorrow mornin',' he says. 'Wheer's it coomin' from?' says I. 'Now, never you mind,' he says. 'It's safe!' 'I don't believe a word you're sayin',' says I. 'Ye're havin' me for t' mug!--that's about it.' An' I went on so at him, 'at i' t' end he tell'd me 'at he wor presently goin' to meet Pratt, and 'at he could get t' brass out o' Pratt an' as much more as iwer he liked to ax for. Well, I don't believe that theer, and I said so. 'What brass has Pratt?' says I. 'Pratt's nowt but a clerk, wi' happen three or four pound a week!' 'That's all you know,' he says. Pratt's become a gold mine, and I'm going to dig in it a bit. What's it matter to you,' he says,' so long as you get your brass?' Well, of course, that wor true enough--all 'at I wanted just then were to handle my brass. And I tell'd him so. 'I'll brek thy neck, Parrawhite,' I says, 'if thou doesn't bring me that theer money eyther to-night or t' first thing tomorrow--so now!' Don't talk rot!' he says. 'I've told you!' And he had money wi' him then--'nough to pay for drinks and cigars, any road, and we had a drink or two, and a smoke or two, and then he went out, sayin' he wor goin' to meet Pratt, and he'd be back at my place before closin' time wi' either t' cash or what 'ud be as good. An' I waited--and waited after closin' time, an' all. But I've nivver seen Parrawhite from that day to this---nor heerd tell on him neither!"

Eldrick and Byner looked at each other for a moment Then the solicitor spoke--quietly and with a significance which the agent understood.

"Do you want to ask Mr. Pickard any questions?" he said.

Byner nodded and turned to the landlord.

"Did Parrawhite tell you where he was going to meet Pratt?" he asked.

"He did," replied Pickard. "Near Pratt's lodgin' place."

"Did--or does--Pratt live near you, then?"

"Closish by--happen ten minutes' walk. There's few o' houses--a sort o' terrace, like, on t' edge o' what they call Whitcliffe Moor. Pratt lodged--lodges now for all I know to t' contrary--i' one o' them."

"Did Parrawhite give you any idea that he was going to the house in which Pratt lodged?"

"No! He were not goin' to t' house. I know he worn't. He tell'd me 'at he'd a good idea what time Pratt 'ud be home, 'cause he knew where he was that evening and he were goin' to meet him just afore Pratt got to his place. I know where he'd meet him."

"Where?" asked Byner. "Tell me exactly. It's important."

"Pratt 'ud come up fro' t' town i' t' tram," answered Pickard. "He'd approach this here terrace I tell'd you about by a narrow lane that runs off t' high road. He'd meet him there, would Parrawhite."

"Did you ever ask any question of Pratt about Parrawhite?"

"No--never! I'd no wish that Pratt should know owt about my dealin's with Parrawhite. When Parrawhite never come back--why, I kep' it all to myself, till now."

"What do you think happened to Parrawhite, Mr. Pickard?" asked Byner.

"Gow, I know what I think!" replied Pickard disgustedly. "I think 'at if he did get any brass out o' Pratt--which is what I know nowt about, and hewn't much belief in--he went straight away fro' t' town--vanished! I do know this--he nivver went back to his lodgin's that neet, 'cause I went theer mysen next day to inquire."

Eldrick pricked up his ears at that. He remembered that he had sent Pratt to make inquiry at Parrawhite's lodgings on the morning whereon the money was missing.

"What time of the day--on the twenty-fourth--was that, Mr. Pickard?" he asked.

"Evenin,' sir," replied the landlord. "They'd nivver seen naught of him since he went out the day before. Oh, he did me, did Parrawhite! Of course, I lost mi brass--fifty odd pounds!"

Byner gave Eldrick a glance.

"I think Mr. Pickard has earned the ten pounds you offered," he said.

Eldrick took the hint and pulled out his cheque-book.

"Of course, you're to keep all this private--strictly private, Mr. Pickard," he said as he wrote. "Not a word to a soul!"

"Just as you order, sir," agreed Pickard. "I'll say nowt--to nobody."

"And--perhaps tomorrow--perhaps this afternoon--you'll see me at the Green Man," remarked Byner. "I shall just drop in, you know. You needn't know me--if there's anybody about."

"All right, sir--I understand," said Pickard.

"Quiet's the word--what? Very good--much obliged to you, gentlemen."

When the landlord had gone Eldrick motioned Byner to pick up his hat. "Come across the street with me," he said. "I want us to have a consultation with a friend of mine, a barrister, Mr. Collingwood. For this matter is assuming' a very queer aspect, and we can't move too warily, nor consider all the features too thoroughly."

Collingwood listened with deep interest to Eldrick's account of the morning's events. And once again he was struck by the fact that all these various happenings in connection with Pratt, and now with Parrawhite, took place at the time of Antony Bartle's death, and he said so.

"True enough!" agreed Eldrick.

"And once more," pointed out Collingwood. "We're hearing of a hold! Pratt claims to have a hold on Mrs. Mallathorpe--now it turns out that Parrawhite boasted of a hold on Pratt. Suppose all these things have a common origin? Suppose the hold which Parrawhite had--or has--on Pratt is part and parcel of the hold which Pratt has on Mrs. Mallathorpe? In that case--or cases--what is the best thing to do?"

"Will you gentlemen allow me to suggest something?" said Byner. "Very well--find Parrawhite! Of all the people concerned in this, Parrawhite, from your account of him, anyway, Mr. Eldrick, is the likeliest person to extract the truth from."

"There's a great deal in that suggestion," said Eldrick. "Do you know what I think?" he went on, turning to Collingwood, "Mr. Byner tells me he means to stay here until he has come across some satisfactory news of Parrawhite or solved the mystery of his disappearance. Well, now that we've found that there is some ground for believing that Parrawhite was in some fashion mixed up with Pratt about that time, why not place the whole thing in Mr. Byner's hands--let him in any case see what he can do about the Parrawhite-Pratt business of November twenty-third, eh?"

"I take it," answered Collingwood, looking at the inquiry agent, "that Mr. Byner having heard what he has, would do that quite apart from us?"

"Yes," said Byner. "Now that I've heard what Pickard had to say, I certainly shall follow that up."

"I am following out something of my own," said Collingwood, turning to Eldrick. "I shall know more by this time tomorrow. Let us have a conference here--at noon."

They separated on that understanding, and Byner went his own ways. His first proceeding was to visit, one after another, the Barford newspaper offices, and to order the insertion in large type, and immediately, of the Halstead-Byner advertisement for news of Parrawhite. His second was to seek the General Post Office, where he wrote out and dispatched a message to his partner in London. That message was in cypher--translated into English, it read as follows:--

"If person named Pratt sends any communication to us re Parrawhite, on no account let him know I am in Barford, but forward whatever he sends to me at once, addressed to H.D. Black, Central Station Hotel."