Chapter XIX. The Eye-Witness
 

When Collingwood said that he was following out something of his own, he was thinking of an interesting discovery which he had made. It was one which might have no significance in relation to the present perplexities--on the other hand, out of it might come a good deal of illumination. Briefly, it was that on the evening before this consultation with Eldrick & Byner, he had found out that he was living in the house of a man who had actually witnessed the famous catastrophe at Mallathorpe's Mill, whereby John Mallathorpe, his manager, and his cashier, together with some other bystanders, had lost their lives.

On settling down in Barford, Collingwood had spent a couple of weeks in looking about him for comfortable rooms of a sort that appealed to his love of quiet and retirement. He had found them at last in an old house on the outskirts of the town--a fine old stone house, once a farmstead, set in a large garden, and tenanted by a middle-aged couple, who having far more room than they needed for themselves, had no objection to letting part of it to a business gentleman. Collingwood fell in love with this place as soon as he saw it. The rooms were large and full of delightful nooks and corners; the garden was rich in old trees; from it there were fine views of the valley beneath, and the heather-clad hills in the distance; within two miles of the town and easily approached by a convenient tram-route, it was yet quite out in the country.

He was just as much set up by his landlady--a comfortable, middle-aged woman, who fostered true Yorkshire notions about breakfast, and knew how to cook a good dinner at night. With her Collingwood had soon come to terms, and to his new abode had transferred a quantity of books and pictures from London. He soon became acquainted with the domestic menage. There was the landlady herself, Mrs. Cobcroft, who, having no children of her own, had adopted a niece, now grown up, and a teacher in an adjacent elementary school: there was a strapping, rosy-cheeked servant-maid, whose dialect was too broad for the lodger to understand more than a few words of it; finally there was Mr. Cobcroft, a mild-mannered, quiet man who disappeared early in the morning, and was sometimes seen by Collingwood returning home in the evening.

Lately, with the advancing spring, this unobtrusive individual was seen about the garden at the end of the day: Collingwood had so seen him on the evening before the talk with Eldrick and Byner, busied in setting seeds in the flower-beds. And he had asked Mrs. Cobcroft, just then in his sitting-room, if her husband was fond of gardening.

"It's a nice change for him, sir," answered the landlady. "He's kept pretty close at it all day in the office yonder at Mallathorpe's Mill, and it does him good to get a bit o' fresh air at nights, now that the fine weather's coming on. That was one reason why we took this old place--it's a deal better air here nor what it is in the town."

"So your husband is at Mallathorpe's Mill, eh?" asked Collingwood.

"Been there--in the counting-house--boy and man, over thirty years, sir," replied Mrs. Cobcroft.

"Did he see that terrible affair then--was it two years ago?"

The landlady shook her head and let out a weighty sigh.

"Aye, I should think he did!" she answered. "And a nice shock it gave him, too!--he actually saw that chimney fall--him and another clerk were looking out o' the counting-house window when it gave way."

Collingwood said no more then--except to remark that such a sight must indeed have been trying to the nerves. But for purposes of his own he determined to have a talk with Cobcroft, and the next evening, seeing him in his garden again, he went out to him and got into conversation, and eventually led up to the subject of Mallathorpe's Mill, the new chimney of which could be seen from a corner of the garden.

"Your wife tells me," observed Collingwood, "that you were present when the old chimney fell at the mill yonder?"

Cobcroft, a quiet, unassuming man, usually of few words, looked along the hillside at the new chimney, and nodded his head. A curious, far-away look came into his eyes.

"I was, sir!" he said. "And I hope I may never see aught o' that sort again, as long as ever I live. It was one o' those things a man can never forget!"

"Don't talk about it if you don't want to," remarked Collingwood. "But I've heard so much about that affair that----"

"Oh, I don't mind talking about it," replied Cobcroft. He leaned over the fence of his garden, still gazing at the mill in the distance. "There were others that saw it, of course: lots of 'em. But I was close at hand--our office was filled with the dust in a few seconds."

"It was a sudden affair?" asked Collingwood.

"It was one of those affairs," answered Cobcroft slowly, "that some folk had been expecting for a long time--only nobody had the sense to see that it might happen at some unexpected minute. It was a very old chimney. It looked all right--stood plumb, and all that. But Mr, Mallathorpe--my old master, Mr. John Mallathorpe, I'm talking of--he got an idea from two or three little things, d'ye see, that it wasn't as safe as it ought to be. And he got a couple of these professional steeplejacks to examine it. They made a thorough examination, too--so far as one could tell by what they did. They'd been at the job several days when the accident happened. One of 'em had only just come down when the chimney fell. Mr. Mallathorpe, himself, and his manager, and his cashier, had just stepped out of the counting-house and crossed the yard to hear what this man had got to say when--down it came! Not the slightest warning at the time. It just--collapsed!"

"You saw the actual collapse?" asked Collingwood.

"Aye--didn't I?" exclaimed Cobcroft. "Another man and myself were looking out of the office window, right opposite. It fell in the queerest way--like this," he went on, holding up his garden-rake. "Supposing this shaft was the chimney--standing straight up. As we looked we saw it suddenly bulge out, on all sides--it was a square chimney, same size all the way up till you got to the cornice at the top--bulge out, d'ye see, just about half-way up--simultaneous, like. Then--down it came with a roar that they heard over half the town! O' course, there were some two or three thousands of tons of stuff in that chimney--and when the dust was cleared a bit there it was in one great heap, right across the yard. And it was a good job," concluded Cobcroft, reflectively, "that it fell straight--collapsed in itself, as you might say--for if it had fallen slanting either way, it 'ud ha' smashed right through some of the sheds, and there'd ha' been a terrible loss of life."

"Mr. John Mallathorpe was killed on the spot, I believe?" suggested Collingwood.

"Aye--and Gaukrodger, and Marshall, and the steeplejack that had just come down, and another or two," said Cobcroft. "They'd no chance--they were standing in a group at the very foot, talking. They were all killed there and then--instantaneous. Some others were struck and injured--one or two died. Yes, sir,--I'm not very like to forget that!"

"A terrible experience!" agreed Collingwood. "It would naturally fix itself on your memory."

"Aye--my memory's very keen about it," said Cobcroft. "I remember every detail of that morning. And," he continued, showing a desire to become reminiscent, "there was something happened that morning, before the accident, that I've oft thought over and has oft puzzled me. I've never said aught to anybody about it, because we Yorkshiremen we're not given to talking about affairs that don't concern us, and after all, it was none o' mine! But you're a law gentleman, and I dare say you get things told to you in confidence now and then, and, of course, this is between you and me. I'll not deny that I have oft thought that I would like to tell it to a lawyer of some sort, and find out how it struck him."

"Anything that you like to tell me, Mr. Cobcroft, I shall treat as a matter of confidence--until you tell me it's no longer a secret," answered Collingwood.

"Why," continued Cobcroft, "it isn't what you rightly would call a secret--though I don't think anybody knows aught about it but myself! It was just this--and it may be there's naught in it but a mere fancy o' mine. That morning, before the accident happened, I was in and out of the private office a good deal--carrying in and out letters, and account books, and so on. Mr. John Mallathorpe's private office, ye'll understand, sir, opened out of our counting-house--as it does still--the present manager, Mr. Horsfall, has it, just as it was. Well, now, on one occasion, when I went in there, to take a ledger back to the safe, Mr. Mallathorpe had his manager and cashier, Gaukrodger and Marshall in with him. Mr. Mallathorpe, he always used a stand-up desk to write at--never wrote sitting down, though he had a big desk in the middle of the room that he used to sit at to look over accounts or talk to people. Now when I went in, he and Gaukrodger and Marshall were all at this stand-up desk--in the window-place--and they were signing some papers. At least Gaukrodger had just signed a paper, and Marshall was taking the pen from him. 'Sign there, Marshall,' says Mr. Mallathorpe. And then he went on, 'Now well sign this other--it's well to have these things in duplicate, in case one gets lost.' And then--well, then, I went out, and--why, that was all."

"You've some idea in your mind about that," said Collingwood, who had watched Cobcroft closely as he talked. "What is it?"

Cobcroft smiled--and looked round as if to ascertain that they were alone. "Why!" he answered in a low voice. "I'll tell you what I did wonder--some time afterwards. I dare say you're aware--it was all in the papers--that Mr. John Mallathorpe died intestate?"

"Yes," asserted Collingwood. "I know that."

"I've oft wondered," continued Cobcroft, "if that could ha' been his will that they were signing! But then I reflected a bit on matters. And there were two or three things that made me say naught at all--not a word. First of all, I considered it a very unlikely thing that a rich man like Mr. John Mallathorpe would make a will for himself. Second--I remembered that very soon after I'd been in his private office Marshall came out into the counting-house and gave the office lad a lot of letters and documents to take to the post--some of 'em big envelopes--and I thought that what I'd seen signed was some agreement or other that was in one of them. And third--and most important--no will was ever found in any of Mr. John Mallathorpe's drawers or safes or anywhere, though they turned things upside down at the office, and, I heard, at his house as well. Of course, you see, sir, supposing that to have been a will--why, the only two men who could possibly have proved it was were dead and gone! They were killed with him. And of course, the young people, the nephew and niece, they came in for everything--so there was an end of it. But--I've oft wondered what those papers were. One thing is certain, anyway!" concluded Cobcroft, with a grim laugh, "when those three signed 'em, they were picking up their pens for the last time!"

"How long was it--after you saw the signing of those papers--that the accident occurred?" asked Collingwood.

"It 'ud be twelve or fifteen minutes, as near as I can recollect," replied Cobcroft. "A few minutes after I'd left the private office, Gaukrodger came out of it, alone, and stood at the door leading into the yard, looking up at the chimney. The steeple-jack was just coming down, and his mate was waiting for him at the bottom. Gaukrodger turned back to the private office and called Mr. Mallathorpe out. All three of 'em, Mallathorpe, Gaukrodger, Marshall, went out and walked across the yard to the chimney foot. They stood there talking a bit--and then--down it came!"

Collingwood thought matters over. Supposing that the document which Cobcroft spoke of as being in process of execution before him were indeed duplicate copies of a will. What could have been done with them, in the few minutes which elapsed between the signing and the catastrophe to the chimney? It was scarcely likely that John Mallathorpe would have sent them away by post. If they had been deposited in his own pocket, they would have been found when his clothing was removed and examined. If they were in the private office when the three men left it----

"You're sure the drawers, safe and so on in Mr. Mallathorpe's room were thoroughly searched--after his death?" he asked.

"I should think they were!" answered Cobcroft laconically. "I helped at that, myself. There wasn't as much as an old invoice that was not well fingered and turned over. No!--I came to the conclusion that what I'd seen signed was some contract or something--sent off there and then by the lad to post."

Collingwood made no further remark and asked no more questions. But he thought long and seriously that night, and he came to certain conclusions. First: what Cobcroft had seen signed was John Mallathorpe's will. Second: John Mallathorpe had made it himself and had taken the unusual course of making a duplicate copy. Third: John Mallathorpe had probably slipped the copy into the History of Barford which was in his private office when he went out to speak to the steeple-jack. Fourth: that copy had come into Linford Pratt's hands through Antony Bartle.

And now arose two big questions. What were the terms of that will? And--where was the duplicate copy? He was still putting these to himself when noon of the next day came and brought Eldrick and Byner for the promised serious consultation.