Chapter XXII. The Cat's Paw
 

On the evening of the day whereon Nesta Mallathorpe had paid him the visit which had resulted in so much plain speech on both sides, Pratt employed his leisure in a calm review of the situation. He was by no means dissatisfied, it seemed to him that everything was going very well for his purposes. He was not at all sorry that Nesta had been to see him--far from it. He regretted nothing that he had said to her. In his desperate opinion, his own position was much stronger when she left him than it was when he opened his office door to her. She now knew, said Pratt, with what a strong and resourceful man she had to deal: she would respect him, and have a better idea of him, now that she was aware of his impregnable position.

Herein Pratt's innate vanity and his ignorance showed themselves. He had little knowledge of modern young women, and few ideas about them; and such ideas as he possessed were usually mistaken ones. But one was that it is always necessary to keep a firm hand on women--let them see and feel your power, said Pratt. He had been secretly delighted to acquaint Nesta Mallathorpe with his power, to drive it into her that he had the whip hand of her mother, and through her mother, of Nesta herself. He had seen that Nesta was much upset and alarmed by what he told her. And though she certainly seemed to recover her spirits at the end of the interview, and even refused to shake hands with him, he cherished the notion that in the war of words he had come off a decided victor. He did not believe that Nesta would utter to any other soul one word of what had passed between them: she would be too much afraid of calling down his vengeance on her mother. What he did believe was that as time went by, and all progressed smoothly, Nesta would come to face and accept facts: she would find him honest and hardworking in his dealings with Mrs. Mallathorpe (as he fully intended to be, from purely personal and selfish motives) and she herself would begin to tolerate and then to trust him, and eventually--well, who knew what might or might not happen? What said the great Talleyrand?--WITH TIME AND PATIENCE, THE MULBERRY LEAF IS TURNED INTO SATIN.

But Pratt's self-complacency received a shock next morning. If he had been a reader of London newspapers, it would have received a shock the day before. Pratt, however, was essentially parochial in his newspaper tastes--he never read anything but the Barford papers. And when he picked up the Barford morning journal and saw Eldrick's advertisement for Parrawhite in a prominent place, he literally started from sheer surprise--not unmingled with alarm. It was as if he were the occupant of a strong position, only fortified, who suddenly finds a shell dropped into his outworks from a totally unexpected quarter.

Parrawhite! Advertised for by Eldrick! Why? For what reason? For what purpose? With what idea? Parrawhite!--of all men in the world--Parrawhite, of whom he had never wanted to hear again! And what on earth could Eldrick want with him, or with news of him? It would be--or might be--an uncommonly awkward thing for him, Pratt, if a really exhaustive search were made for Parrawhite. For nobody knew better than himself that one little thing leads to another, and--but he forbore to follow out what might have been his train of thought. Once he was tempted to make an excuse for going round to Eldrick & Pascoe's with the idea of fishing for information--but he refrained. Let things develop--that was a safer plan. Still, he was anxious and disturbed all day. Then, towards the end of the afternoon, he bought one of the Barford evening papers--and saw, in staring letters, the advertisement which Byner had caused to be inserted only a few hours previously. And at that, Pratt became afraid.

Parrawhite wanted!--news of Parrawhite wanted!--and in two separate quarters. Wanted by Eldrick--wanted by some London people! What in the name of the devil did it mean? At any rate, he must see to himself. One thing was certain--no search for Parrawhite must be permitted in Barford.

That evening, instead of going home to dinner, Pratt remained in town, and dined at a quiet restaurant. When he dined, he thought, and planned, and schemed--and after treating himself very well in the matter of food and drink, he lighted a cigar, returned to his new offices, opened a safe which he had just set up, and took from a drawer in it a hundred pounds in bank-notes. With these in his pocket-book he went off to a quiet part of the town--the part in which James Parrawhite had lodged during his stay in Barford.

Pratt turned into a somewhat mean and shabby street--a street of small, poor-class shops. He went forward amongst them until he came to one which, if anything, was meaner and shabbier than the others and bore over its window the name Reuben Murgatroyd--Watchmaker and Jeweller. There were few signs of jewellery in Reuben Murgatroyd's window--some cheap clocks, some foreign-made watches of the five-shilling and seven-and-six variety, a selection of flashy rings and chains were spread on the shelves, equally cheap and flashy bangles, bracelets, and brooches lay in dust-covered trays on the sloping bench beneath them. At these things Pratt cast no more than a contemptuous glance. But he looked with interest at the upper part of the window, in which were displayed numerous gaily-coloured handbills and small posters relating to shipping--chiefly in the way of assisted passages to various parts of the globe. These set out that you could get an assisted passage to Canada for so much; to Australia for not much more--and if the bills and posters themselves did not tell you all you wanted to know, certain big letters at the foot of each invited you to apply for further information to Mr. R. Murgatroyd, agent, within. And Pratt pushed open the shop-door and walked inside.

An untidily dressed, careworn, anxious-looking man came forward from a parlour at the rear of his shop. At sight of Pratt--who in the course of business had once served him with a writ--his pale face flushed, and then whitened, and Pratt hastened to assure him of his peaceful errand.

"All right, Mr. Murgatroyd," he said. "Nothing to be alarmed about--I'm out of that line, now--no papers of that sort tonight. I've a bit of business I can put in your hands--profitable business. Look here!--have you got a quarter of an hour to spare?"

Murgatroyd, who looked greatly relieved to find that his visitor had neither writ nor summons for him, glanced at his parlour door.

"I was just going to put the shutters up, and sit down to a bite of supper, Mr. Pratt," he answered. "Will you come in, sir?"

"No--you come out with me," said Pratt. "Come round to the Coach and Horses, and have a drink and we can talk. You'll have a better appetite for your supper when you come back," he added, with a wink. I've a profitable job for you."

"Glad to hear it, sir," replied Murgatroyd. "I can do with aught of that sort, I assure you!" He went into the parlour, said a word or two to some person within, and came out again. "Not much business doing at present, Mr. Pratt," he said, as he and his visitor turned into the street. "Gets slacker than ever."

"Then you'll do with a slice of good luck," remarked Pratt. "It just happens that I can put a bit in your way."

He led Murgatroyd to the end of the street, where stood a corner tavern, into a side-door of which Pratt turned as if he were well acquainted with the geography of the place. Walking down a narrow passage he conducted his companion into a small parlour, at that moment untenanted, pointed him to a seat in the corner, and rang the bell. Five minutes later, having provided Murgatroyd with rum and water and a cigar, he turned on him with a direct question.

"Look here!" he said in a low voice. "Would a hundred pounds be any use to you?"

Murgatroyd's cheeks flushed.

"It 'ud be a fortune!" he answered with fervour. "A hundred pound! Lor' bless you, Mr. Pratt, it's many a year since I saw a hundred pound--of my own--all in one lump!"

Pratt pulled out his roll of bank-notes, fluttered it in his companion's face, laid it on the table, and set an ashtray on it.

"There's a hundred pounds there!" he said, "It's yours to pick up--if you'll do a little job for me. Easy job, too!--you'll never earn a hundred pounds so easy in your life!"

Murgatroyd pricked up his ears. According to his ideas, money easily come by was seldom honestly earned. He stirred uncomfortably in his seat.

"So long as it's a straight job," he muttered. "I don't want----"

"Straight enough--as straight as it's easy," answered Pratt. "It may seem a bit mysterious, but there's reasons for that. I give you my word it's all right--all a mere bit of diplomacy--and that nobody'll ever know you're in it--that is, beyond a certain stage--and that there's no danger to you."

"What is it?" asked Murgatroyd, still uneasy and doubtful.

Pratt pulled the evening paper out of his pocket and showed Murgatroyd the advertisement signed Halstead & Byner.

"You see that?" he said. "Information wanted about Parrawhite. Do you remember Parrawhite? He once served you with some papers in that affair in which we were against you."

"I remember him," answered Murgatroyd. "I've seen him in here now and again. So he's wanted, is he? I didn't know he'd left the town."

"Left last November," said Pratt. "And--there are folks--influential folks, as you can guess, seeing that they can throw a hundred pounds away!--who don't want any inquiries made for him in Barford. They don't mind--those folks--how many inquiries and searches are made for him anywhere else, but--not here!"

"Well?" asked Murgatroyd anxiously.

"This is it," replied Pratt. "You do a bit now and then as agent for some of these shipping lines. You book passages for emigrants--and for other people, going to New Zealand or Canada or Timbuctoo--never mind where. Now then--couldn't you remember--I'm sure you could--that you booked a passage for Parrawhite to America last November? Come! It's an easy matter to remember is that--for a hundred pounds."

Murgatroyd's thin fingers trembled a little as he picked up his glass. "What do you want me to do--exactly?" he asked.

"This!" said Pratt. "I want you, tomorrow morning, early, to send a telegram to these people, Halstead & Byner, St. Martin's Chambers, London, just saying that James Parrawhite left Barford for America on November 24th last, and that you can give further information if necessary."

"And what if it is necessary?" inquired Murgatroyd.

"Then--in answer to any letter or telegram of inquiry--you'll just say that you knew Parrawhite by sight as a clerk at Eldrick & Pascoe's in this town, that on November 23rd he told you that he was going to emigrate to America, that next day you booked him his passage, for which he paid you whatever it was, and that he thereupon set off for Liverpool. See?"

"It's all lies, you know," muttered Murgatroyd.

"Nobody can find 'em out, anyway," replied Pratt. "That's the one important thing to consider. You're safe! And if you're cursed with a conscience and it's tender--well, that'll make a good plaister for it!"

He pointed to the little wad of bank-notes--and the man sitting at his side followed the pointing finger with hungry eyes. Murgatroyd wanted money badly. His business, always poor, was becoming worse: his shipping agency rarely produced any result: his rent was in arrears: he owed money to his neighbour-tradesmen: he had a wife and young children. To such a man, a hundred pounds meant relief, comfort, the lifting of pressure.

"You're sure there's naught wrong in it, Mr. Pratt," he asked abruptly and assiduously. "It 'ud be a bad job for my family if anything happened to me, you know."

"There's naught that will happen," answered Pratt confidently. "Who on earth can contradict you? Who knows what people you sell passages to--but yourself?"

"There's the folks themselves," replied Murgatroyd. "Suppose Parrawhite turns up?"

"He won't!" exclaimed Pratt.

"You know where he is?" suggested Murgatroyd.

"Not exactly," said Pratt, "But--he's left this country for another--further off than America. That's certain! And--the folks I referred to don't want any inquiry about him here."

"If I am asked questions--later--am I to say he booked in his own name?" inquired Murgatroyd.

"No--name of Parsons," responded Pratt. "Here, I'll write down for you exactly what I want you to say in the telegram to Halstead & Byner, and I'll make a few memoranda for you--to post you up in case they write for further information."

"I haven't said that I'll do it," remarked Murgatroyd. "I don't like the looks of it. It's all a pack of lies."

Pratt paid no heed to this moral reflection. He found some loose paper in his pocket and scribbled on it for a while. Then, as if accidentally, he moved the ash-tray, and the bank-notes beneath it, all new, gave forth a crisp, rustling sound.

"Here you are!" said Pratt, pushing notes and memoranda towards his companion. "Take the brass, man!--you don't get a job like that every day."

And Murgatroyd put the money in his pocket, and presently went home, persuading himself that everything would be all right.