Chapter XXI. The Direct Charge
 

While Byner was pursuing his investigations in the neighbourhood of the Green Man, Collingwood was out at Normandale Grange, discussing certain matters with Nesta Mallathorpe. He had not only thought long and deeply over his conversation with Cobcroft the previous evening, but had begun to think about the crucial point of the clerk's story as soon as he spoke in the morning, and the result of his meditations was that he rose early, intercepted Cobcroft before he started for Mallathorpe's Mill and asked his permission to re-tell the story to Miss Mallathorpe. Cobcroft raised no objection, and when Collingwood had been to his chambers and seen his letters, he chartered a car and rode out to Normandale where he told Nesta of what he had learned and of his own conclusions. And Nesta, having listened carefully to all he had to tell, put a direct question to him.

"You think this document which Pratt told me he holds is my late uncle's will?" she said. "What do you suppose its terms to be?"

"Frankly--these, or something like these," replied Collingwood. "And I get at my conclusions in this way. Your uncle died intestate--consequently, everything in the shape of real estate came to your brother and everything in personal property to your brother and yourself. Now, supposing that the document which Pratt boasts of holding is the will, one fact is very certain--the property, real or personal, is not disposed of in the way in which it became disposed of because of John Mallathorpe's intestacy. He probably disposed of it in quite another fashion. Why do I think that? Because the probability is that Pratt said to your mother, 'I have got John Mallathorpe's will! It doesn't leave his property to your son and daughter. Therefore, I have all of you at my mercy. Make it worth my while, or I will bring the will forward.' Do you see that situation?"

"Then," replied Nesta, after a moment's reflection, "you do think that my mother was very anxious to get that document--a will--from Pratt?"

Collingwood knew what she was thinking of--her mind was still uneasy about Pratt's account of the affair of the foot-bridge. But--the matter had to be faced.

"I think your mother would naturally be very anxious to secure such a document," he said. "You must remember that according to Pratt's story to you, she tried to buy it from him--just as you did yourself, though you, of course, had no idea of what it was you wanted to buy."

"What I wanted to buy," she answered readily, "was necessity from further interference! But--is there no way of compelling Pratt to give up that document--whatever it is? Can't he be made to give it up?"

"A way is may be being made, just now--through another affair," replied Collingwood. "At present matters are vague. One couldn't go to Pratt and demand something at which one is, after all, only guessing. Your mother, of course, would deny that she knows what it is that Pratt holds. But--there is the possibility of the duplicate to which Cobcroft referred. Now, I want to put the question straight to you--supposing that duplicate will can be found--and supposing--to put it plainly---its terms dispossess you of all your considerable property--what then?"

"Do you want the exact truth?" she asked. "Well, then, I should just welcome anything that cleared up all this mystery! What is it at present, this situation, but intolerable? I know that my mother is in Pratt's power, and likely to remain so as long as ever this goes on--probably for life. She will not give me her confidence. What is more, I am certain that she is giving it to Esther Mawson--who is most likely hand-in-glove with Pratt. Esther Mawson is always with her. I am almost sure that she communicates with Pratt through Esther Mawson. It is all what I say--intolerable! I had rather lose every penny that has come into my hands than have this go on."

"Answer me a plain question," said Collingwood. "Is your mother fond of money, position--all that sort of thing?"

"She is fond of power!" replied Nesta. "It pleased her greatly when we came into all this wealth to know that she was the virtual administrator. Even if she could only do it by collusion with Pratt, she would make a fight for all that she--and I--hold. It's useless to deny that. Don't forget," she added, looking appealingly at Collingwood, "don't forget that she has known what it was to be poor--and if one does come into money--I suppose one doesn't want to lose it again."

"Oh, it's natural enough!" agreed Collingwood. "But--if things are as I think, Pratt would be an incubus, a mill-stone, for ever. Anyway, I came out to tell you what I've learned, and what I have an idea may be the truth, and above all, to get your definite opinion. You want the Pratt influence out of the way--at any cost?"

"At any cost!" she affirmed. "Even if I have to go back to earning my own living! Whatever pleasure in life could there be for me, knowing that at the back of all this there is that--what?"

"Pratt!" answered Collingwood. "Pratt! He's the shadow--with his deep schemes. However, as I said--there may be--developing at this moment--another way of getting at Pratt. Gentlemen like Pratt, born schemers, invariably forget one very important factor in life--the unexpected! Even the cleverest and most subtle schemer may have his delicate machinery broken to pieces by a chance bit of mere dust getting into it at an unexpected turn of the wheels. And to turn to plainer language--I'm going back to Barford now to hear what another man has to say concerning certain of Pratt's recent movements."

Eldrick was already waiting when Collingwood reached his chambers: Byner came there a few moments later. Within half an hour the barrister had told his story of Cobcroft, and the inquiry agent his of his visit to the Green Man and the quarries. And the solicitor listened quietly and attentively to both, and in the end turned to Collingwood.

"I'll withdraw my opinion about the nature of the document which Pratt got hold of," he said. "What he's got is what you think--John Mallathorpe's will!"

"If I may venture an opinion," remarked Byner, "that's dead certain!"

"And now," continued Eldrick, "we're faced with a nice situation! Don't either of you forget this fact. Not. out of willingness on her part, but because she's got to do it, Mrs. Mallathorpe and Pratt are partners in that affair. He's got the will--but she knows its contents. She'll pay any price to Pratt to keep them from ever becoming known or operative. But, as I say, don't you forget something!"

"What?" asked Collingwood.

Eldrick tapped the edge of the table, emphasizing his words as he spoke them.

"They can destroy that will whenever they like!" he said. "And once destroyed, nothing can absolutely prove that it ever existed!"

"The duplicate?" suggested Collingwood.

"Nothing to give us the faintest idea as to its existence!" said Eldrick,

"We might advertise," said Collingwood.

"Lots of advertising was done when John Mallathorpe died," replied the solicitor. "No!--if any person had had it in possession, it would have turned up then. It may be--probably is--possibly must be--somewhere--and may yet come to light. But--there's another way of getting at Pratt. Through this Parrawhite affair. Pratt most likely had not the least notion that he would ever hear of Parrawhite again. He is going to hear of Parrawhite again! I am convinced now that Parrawhite knew something about this, and that Pratt squared him and got him away. Aren't you?" he asked, turning to Byner.

But Byner smiled quietly and shook his head.

"No!" he answered. "I am not, Mr. Eldrick."

"You're not?" exclaimed Eldrick, surprised and wondering that anybody could fail to agree with him.

"Why not, then?"

"Because," replied Byner. "I am certain that Pratt murdered Parrawhite on the night of November twenty-third last. That's why. He didn't square him. He didn't get him away. He killed him!"

The effect of this straightforward pronouncement of opinion on the two men who heard it was strikingly different. Collingwood's face at once became cold and inscrutable; his lips fixed themselves sternly; his eyes looked hard into a problematic future. But Eldrick flushed as if a direct accusation had been levelled at himself, and he turned on the inquiry agent almost impatiently.

"Murder!" he exclaimed. "Oh, come! I--really, that's rather a stiff order! I dare say Pratt's been up to all sorts of trickery, and even deviltry--but murder is quite another thing. You're pretty ready to accuse him!"

Byner moved his head in Collingwood's direction--and Eldrick turned and looked anxiously at Collingwood, who, finding the eyes of both men on him, opened his hitherto tight-shut lips.

"I think it quite likely!" he said.

Byner laughed softly and looked at the solicitor.

"Just listen to me a minute or two, Mr. Eldrick," he said. "I'll sum up my own ideas on this matter, got from the various details that have been supplied to me since I came to Barford. Just consider my points one by one. Let's take them separately--and see how they fit in.

"1. Mr. Bartle is seen by his shop-boy to take a certain paper from a book which came from the late John Mallathorpe's office at Mallathorpe Mill. He puts that paper in his pocket.

"2. Immediately afterwards Mr. Bartle goes to your office. Nobody is there but Pratt--as far as Pratt knows.

"3. Bartle dies suddenly--after telling Pratt that the paper is John Mallathorpe's will. Pratt steals the will. And the probability is that Parrawhite, unknown to Pratt, was in that office, and saw him steal it. Why is that probable? Because--

"4. Next night Parrawhite, who is being pressed for money by Pickard, tells Pickard that he can get it out of Pratt, over whom he has a hold. What hold? We can imagine what hold. Anyway--

"5. Parrawhite leaves Pickard to meet Pratt. He did meet Pratt--in Stubbs' Lane. He was seen to go with Pratt into the disused quarry. And there, in my opinion, Pratt killed him--and disposed of his body.

"6. What does Pratt do next? He goes to your office first thing next morning, and removes certain moneys which you say you carelessly left in your desk the night before, and tears out certain cheque forms from your book. When Parrawhite never turns up that morning, you--and Pratt--conclude that he's the thief, and that he's run away.

"7. If you want some proof of the correctness of this last suggestion, you'll find it in the fact that no use has ever been made of those blank cheques, and that--in all probability--the stolen bank-notes have never reached the Bank of England. On that last point I'm making inquiry--but my feeling is that Pratt destroyed both cheques and bank-notes when he stole them.

"8. This man Parrawhite out of the way, Pratt has a clear field. He's got the will. He's already acquainted Mrs. Mallathorpe with that fact, and with the terms of the will--whatever they may be. We may be sure, however, that they are of such a nature as to make her willing to agree to his demands upon her--and, accidentally, to go to any lengths--upon which we needn't touch, at present--towards getting possession of the will from him.

"9. And the present situation--from Pratt's standpoint of yesterday--is this. He's so sure of his own safety that he doesn't mind revealing to the daughter that the mother's in his power. Why? Because Pratt, like most men of his sort, cannot believe that self-interest isn't paramount with everybody--it's beyond him to conceive it possible that Miss Mallathorpe would do anything that might lose her several thousands a year. He argued--'So long as I hold that will, nobody and nothing can make me give it up nor divulge its contents. But I can bind one person who benefits by it--Miss Mallathorpe, and for the mother's sake I can keep the daughter quiet!' Well--he hasn't kept the daughter quiet! She--spoke!

"10. And last--in all such schemes as Pratt's, the schemer invariably forgets something. Pratt forgot that there might arise what actually has arisen--inquiry for Parrawhite. The search for Parrawhite is afoot--and if you want to get at Pratt, it will have to be through what I firmly believe to be a fact--his murder of Parrawhite and his disposal of Parrawhite's body.

"That's all, Mr. Eldrick," concluded Byner who had spoken with much emphasis throughout. "It all seems very clear to me, and," he added, with a glance at Collingwood, "I think Mr. Collingwood is inclined to agree with most of what I've said."

"Pretty nearly all--if not all," assented Collingwood. "I think you've put into clear language precisely what I feel. I don't believe there's a shadow of doubt that Pratt killed Parrawhite! And we can--and must--get at him in that way. What do you suggest?" he continued, turning to Byner. "You have some idea, of course?"

"First of all," answered Byner, "we mustn't arouse any suspicion on Pratt's part. Let us work behind the screen. But I have an idea as to how he disposed of Parrawhite, and I'm going to follow it up this very day--my first duty, you know, is towards the people who want Parrawhite, or proof of his death. I propose to----"

Just then Collingwood's clerk came in with a telegram.

"Sent on from the Central Hotel, sir," he answered. "They said Mr. Black would be found here."

"That's mine," said the inquiry agent. "I left word at the hotel that they were to send to your chambers if any wire came for me. Allow me." He opened the telegram, looked it over, and waiting until the clerk had gone, turned to his companions. "Here's a message from my partner, Mr. Halstead," he continued. "Listen to what he wires:

"'Wire just received from Murgatroyd, shipping agent, Peel Row, Barford. He says Parrawhite left that town for America on November 24th last and offers further information. Let me know what to reply!'"

Byner laid the message before Eldrick and Collingwood without further comment.