Chapter XXIII. Smooth Face and Anxious Brain

Byner watched Eldrick and Collingwood inquisitively as they bent over Halstead's telegram. He was not surprised when Collingwood merely nodded in silence--nor when Eldrick turned excitedly in his own direction.

"There!--what did I tell you?" he exclaimed. "There's been no murder! The man left the town. Probably, Pratt helped him off. Couldn't have better proof than that wire!"

"What do you take that wire to prove, then, Mr. Eldrick?" asked Byner.

"Take it to prove!" answered Eldrick. "Why, that Parrawhite booked a passage to America with this man Murgatroyd, last November. Clear enough, that!"

"What do you take it to prove, Mr. Collingwood?" continued the inquiry agent, as he turned to the barrister with a smile.

"Before I take it for anything," replied Collingwood, "I want to know who Murgatroyd is."

Byner looked at Eldrick and laughed.

"Precisely!" he said. "Who is Murgatroyd? Perhaps Mr. Eldrick knows."

"I do just know that he's a man who carries on a small watch and clock business in a poorish part of the town, and that he has some sort of a shipping agency," answered Eldrick. "But--do you mean to imply that whatever message it is that he's sent to your partner in London this morning has not been sent in good faith?"

"I don't imply anything," answered Byner. "All I say is--before I attach any value to his message I, like Collingwood, want to know something about the sender. He may have been put up to sending it. He may be in collusion with somebody. Now, Mr. Eldrick, you can come in here--strongly! I don't want to be seen in this affair--yet. Will you go and see Murgatroyd? Tell him his wire to Halstead & Byner in London has been communicated to you here. Ask him for further particulars--and then drop in on me at my hotel and tell me what you've learnt. I'll be found in the smoking-room there any time after two-thirty onward."

Eldrick's intense curiosity in what was rapidly becoming a fascinating mystery to him, led him to accept this embassy. And a little before three o'clock he walked into the smoking-room at the Central Hotel and discovered Byner in a comfortable corner.

"I've seen Murgatroyd," he whispered, as he took an adjacent chair. "Decent honest enough man--very poor, I should say. He tells a plain enough story. Parrawhite, whom he knew as one of our clerks, told him, last November 23rd----"

"He was exact about dates, then, was he?" interrupted Byner.

"He mentioned them readily enough," replied the solicitor. "But to go on--Parrawhite mentioned to him, November 23rd last, that he wanted to go to America at once, Murgatroyd told him about bookings. Parrawhite called very early next morning, paid for his passage under the name of Parsons, and went off--en route for Liverpool, of course. So--there you are!"

"That's all Murgatroyd could tell?" inquired Byner,

"That's all he knows," answered Eldrick.

"You say Murgatroyd knew Parrawhite as one of your clerks?" asked Byner after a moment's thought.

"We had some process in hand against this man last autumn," replied Eldrick. "I dare say Parrawhite served him with papers."

"Would he--Murgatroyd--be likely to know Pratt?" continued Byner.

"He might--in the same connection," admitted Eldrick.

Byner smoked in silence for a while.

"Do you know what I think, Mr. Eldrick?" he said at last. "I think Pratt put up Murgatroyd to sending that telegram to us in London this morning."

"You do!" exclaimed Eldrick.

"Surely! And now," continued the inquiry agent, "if you will, you can do more--much more--without appearing to do anything. Pratt's office is only a few minutes away. Can you drop in there, making some excuse, and while there, mention, more or less casually, that Parrawhite, or information about him, is wanted; that you and a certain Halstead & Byner are advertising for him; that you've just seen Murgatroyd in respect of a communication which he wired to Halstead's this morning, and that--most important of all--a fortune of twenty thousand pounds is awaiting Parrawhite! Don't forget the last bit of news."

"Why that particularly?" asked Eldrick.

"Because," answered Byner solemnly, "I want Pratt to know that the search for Parrawhite is going to be a thorough one!"

Eldrick went off on his second mission, promising to return in due course. Within a few minutes he was in Pratt's office, talking over some unimportant matter of business which he had invented as he went along. It was not until he was on the point of departure that he referred to the real reason of his visit.

"Did you notice that Parrawhite is being advertised for?" he asked, suddenly turning on his old clerk.

Pratt was ready for this--had been ready ever since Eldrick walked in. He affected a fine surprise.

"Parrawhite!" he exclaimed. "Why--who's advertising for him?"

"Don't you see the newspapers?" asked Eldrick, pointing to some which lay about the room. "It's in there--there's an advertisement of mine, and one of Halstead & Byner's, of London,"

Pratt picked up a Barford paper and looked at the advertisements with a clever affectation of having never seen them before.

"I haven't had much time for newspaper reading this last day or two," he remarked. "Advertisements for him--from two quarters!"

"Acting together--acting together, you know!" replied Eldrick. "It's those people who really want him--Halstead & Byner, inquiry agents, working for a firm of City solicitors. I'm only local agent--as it were."

"Had any response, Mr. Eldrick?" asked Pratt, throwing aside the paper. "Any one come forward?"

"Yes," answered Eldrick, watching Pratt narrowly without seeming to do so. "This morning, a man named Murgatroyd, in Peel Row, who does a bit of shipping agency, wired to Halstead & Byner to say that he booked Parrawhite to New York last November. Of course, they at once communicated with me, and I've just been to see Murgatroyd. He's that man--watchmaker--we had some proceedings against last year."

"Oh, that man!" said Pratt. "Thought the name was familiar. I remember him. And what does he say?"

"Just about as much as--and little more than--he said in his wire to London," replied Eldrick. "Booked Parrawhite to America November 24th last, and believes he left for Liverpool there and then."

"Ah!" remarked Pratt, "That explains it, then?"

"Explains--what?" asked Eldrick.

Pratt gave his old employer a look--confidential and significant.

"Explains why he took that money out of your desk," he said. "You remember--forty odd pounds. He'd use some of that for his passage-money. America eh? Now--I suppose he's vanished for good, then--it's not very likely he'll ever be heard of from across there."

Eldrick laughed--meaningly, of set purpose.

"We don't know that he's gone there," he observed. "He mightn't get beyond Liverpool, you know. Anyhow, we're going to make a very good search for him here in Barford, first. We've nothing but Murgatroyd's word for his having set out for Liverpool."

"What's he wanted for?" asked Pratt as unconcernedly as possible. "Been up to something?"

"No," answered Eldrick, as he turned on his heel. "A relation has left him twenty thousand pounds. That's what he's wanted for--and why he must be found--or his death proved."

He gave Pratt another quick glance and went off--to return to the hotel and Byner, to whom he at once gave a faithful account of what had just taken place.

"And he didn't turn a hair," he remarked. "Cool as a cucumber, all through! If your theory is correct, Pratt's a cleverer hand than I ever took him for--and I've always said he was clever."

"Didn't show anything when you mentioned Murgatroyd?" asked Byner.

"Not a shred of a thing!" replied Eldrick.

"Nor when you spoke of the twenty thousand pounds?"

"No more than what you might call polite and interested surprise!"

Byner laughed, threw away the end of a cigar, and rose out of his lounging posture.

"Now, Mr. Eldrick," he said, leaning close to the solicitor, "between ourselves, do you know what I'm going to do--next--which means at once?"

"No," replied Eldrick.

"The police!" whispered Byner. "That's my next move. Just now! Within a few minutes. So--will you give me a couple of notes--one to the principal man here--chief constable, or police superintendent, or whatever he is; and another to the best detective there is here--in your opinion. They'll save me a lot of trouble."

"Of course--if you wish it," answered Eldrick. "But you don't mean to say you're going to have Pratt arrested--on what you know up to now?"

"Not at all!" replied Byner. "Much too soon! All I want is--detective help of the strictly professional kind. No--we'll give Mr. Pratt a little more rope yet--for another four-and-twenty-hours, say. But--it'll come! Now, who is the best local detective--a quiet, steady fellow who knows how to do his work unobtrusively?"

"Prydale's the man!" said Eldrick "Detective-Sergeant Prydale--I've had reason to employ him, more than once. I'll give you a note to him, and one to Superintendent Waterson."

He went over to a writing-table and scribbled a few lines on half-sheets of notepaper which he enclosed in envelopes and handed to Byner.

"I don't know what line you're taking," he said, "nor where it's going to end--exactly. But I do know this--Pratt never turned a hair when I let out all that to him."

But if Eldrick went away from his old clerk's fine new offices thinking that Pratt was quite unperturbed and unmoved by the news he had just acquired, he was utterly mistaken. Pratt was very much perturbed, deeply moved, not a little frightened. He had so schooled himself to keep a straight and ever blank expression of countenance in any sudden change of events that he had shown nothing to Eldrick--but he was none the less upset by the solicitor's last announcement. Twenty thousand pounds was lying to be picked up by Parrawhite--or by Parrawhite's next-of-kin! What an unhappy turn of fortune! For the next-of-kin would never rest until either Parrawhite came to light, or it was satisfactorily established that he was dead--and if search begun to be made in Barford, where might not that search end? Unmoved?--cool?--if Eldrick had turned back, he would have found that Pratt had suddenly given way to a fit of nerves.

But that soon passed, and Pratt began to think. He left his office early, and betook himself to his favourite gymnasium. Exercise did him good--he thought a lot while he was exercising. And once more, instead of going home to dinner, he dined in town, and he sat late over his dinner in a snug corner of the restaurant, and he thought and planned and schemed--and after twilight had fallen on Barford, he went out and made his way to Peel Row. He must see Murgatroyd again--at once.

Half-way along Peel Row, Pratt stopped, suddenly--and with sudden fear. Out of a side street emerged a man, a quiet ordinary-looking man whom he knew very well indeed--Detective-Sergeant Prydale. He was accompanied by a smart-looking, much younger man, whom Pratt remembered to have seen in Beck Street that afternoon--a stranger to him and to Barford. And as he watched, these two covered the narrow roadway, and walked into Murgatroyd's shop.