Chapter XXIV. The Better Half
 

Under the warming influence of two glasses of rum and water, and lulled by Pratt's assurance that all would be well, Murgatroyd had carried home his hundred pounds with pretty much the same feeling which permeates a man who, having been within measurable distance of drowning, suddenly finds a substantial piece of timber drifting his way, and takes a firm grip on it. After all, a hundred pounds was a hundred pounds. He would be able to pay his rent, and his rates, and give something to the grocer and the butcher and the baker and the milkman; the children should have some much-needed new clothes and boots--when all this was done, there would be a nice balance left over. And it was Pratt's affair, when all was said and done, and if any trouble arose, why, Pratt would have to settle it. So he ate his supper with the better appetite which Pratt had prophesied, and he slept more satisfactorily than usual, and next morning he went to the nearest telegraph office and sent off the stipulated telegram to Halstead & Byner in London, and hoped that there was the end of the matter as far as he was concerned. And then, shortly after noon, in walked Mr. Eldrick, one of the tribe which Murgatroyd dreaded, having had various dealings with solicitors, in the way of writs and summonses, and began to ask questions.

Murgatroyd emerged from that ordeal very satisfactorily. Eldrick's questions were few, elementary, and easily answered. There were no signs of suspicion about him, and Murgatroyd breathed more freely when he was gone. It seemed to him that the solicitor's visit would certainly wind things up--for him. Eldrick asked all that could be asked, as far as he could see, and he had replied: now, he would probably be bothered no more. His spirits had assumed quite a cheerful tone by evening--but they received a rude shock when, summoned from his little workshop to the front premises, he found himself confronting one man whom he certainly knew to be a detective, and another who might be one. Do what he would he could not conceal some agitation, and Detective-Sergeant Prydale, a shrewdly observant man, noticed it--and affected not to.

"Evening, Mr. Murgatroyd," he said cheerily. "We've come to see if you can give us a bit of information. You've had Mr. Eldrick, the lawyer, here today on the same business. You know--this affair of an old clerk of his--Parrawhite?"

"I told Mr. Eldrick all I know," muttered Murgatroyd.

"Very likely," replied Prydale, "but there's a few questions this gentleman and myself would like to ask. Can we come in?"

Murgatroyd fetched his wife to mind the shop, and took the callers into the parlour which she had unwillingly vacated. He knew Prydale by sight and reputation; about Byner he wondered. Finally he set him down as a detective from London--and was all the more afraid of him.

"What do you want to know?" he asked, when the three men were alone. "I don't think there's anything that I didn't tell Mr. Eldrick."

"Oh, there's a great deal that Mr. Eldrick didn't ask," said Prydale. "Mr. Eldrick sort of just skirted round things, like. We want to know a bit more. This Parrawhite's got to be found, d'ye see, Mr. Murgatroyd, and as you seem to be the last man who had aught to do with him in Barford, why, naturally, we come to you. Now, to start with, you say he came to you about getting a passage to America? Just so--now, when would that be?"

"Day before he did get it," answered Murgatroyd, rapidly thinking over the memoranda which Pratt had jotted down for his benefit.

"That," said Prydale, "would be on the 23rd?"

"Yes," replied Murgatroyd, "23rd November, of course."

"What time, now, on the 23rd?" asked the detective.

"Time?" said Murgatroyd. "Oh--in the evening."

"Bit vague," remarked Prydale. "What time in the evening?"

"As near as I can recollect," replied Murgatroyd, "it 'ud be just about half-past eight. I was thinking of closing."

"Ah!" said Prydale, with a glance at Byner, who had already told him of Parrawhite's presence at the Green Man on the other side of the town, a good two miles away, at the hour which Murgatroyd mentioned. "Ah!--he was here in your shop at half-past eight on the evening of November 23rd last? Asking about a ticket to America?"

"New York," muttered Murgatroyd.

"And he came next morning and bought one?" asked the detective.

"I told Mr. Eldrick that," said Murgatroyd, a little sullenly.

"How much did it cost?" inquired Byner.

"Eight pound ten," replied Murgatroyd. "Usual price."

"What did he pay for it in?" continued Prydale.

"He gave me a ten-pound note and I gave him thirty shillings change," answered Murgatroyd.

"Just so," assented Prydale. "Now what line might that be by?"

Murgatroyd was becoming uneasy under all these questions, and his uneasiness was deepened by the way in which both his visitors watched him. He was a man who would have been a bad witness in any case--nervous, ill at ease, suspicious, inclined to boggle--and in this instance he was being forced to invent answers.

"It was--oh, the Royal Atlantic!" he answered at last. "I've an agency for them."

"So I noticed from the bills and placards in your window," observed the detective. "And of course you issue these tickets on their paper--I've seen 'em before. You fill up particulars on a form and a counterfoil, don't you? And you send a copy of those particulars to the Royal Atlantic offices at Liverpool?"

Murgatroyd nodded silently--this was much more than he bargained for, and he did not know how much further it was going. And Prydale gave him a sudden searching look.

"Can you show us the counterfoil in this instance?" he asked.

Murgatroyd flushed. But he managed to get out a fairly quick reply. "No, I can't," he answered, "I sent that book back at the end of the year."

"Oh, well--they'll have it at Liverpool," observed Prydale. "We can get at it there. Of course, they'll have your record of the entire transaction. He'd be down on their passenger list--under the name of Parsons, I think, Mr. Murgatroyd?"

"He gave me that name," said Murgatroyd.

Prydale gave Byner a look and both rose.

"I think that's about all," said the detective. "Of course, our next inquiry will be at Liverpool---at the Royal Atlantic. Thank you, Mr. Murgatroyd--much obliged."

Before the watchmaker could collect himself sufficiently to say or ask more, Prydale and his companion had walked out of the shop and gone away. And then Murgatroyd realized that he was in for--but he did not know what he was in for. What he did know was that if Prydale went or sent over to Liverpool the whole thing would burst like a bubble. For the Royal Atlantic people would tell the detectives at once that no passenger named Parsons had sailed under their auspices on November 24th last, and that he, Murgatroyd, had been telling a pack of lies.

Mrs. Murgatroyd, a sharp-featured woman whose wits had been sharpened by a ten years' daily acquaintance with poverty, came out of the shop into the parlour and looked searchingly at her husband.

"What did them fellows want?" she demanded. "I knew one of 'em--Prydale, the detective. Now what's up, Reuben? More trouble?"

Murgatroyd hesitated a moment. Then he told his wife the whole story concealing nothing.

"If they go to the Royal Atlantic, it'll all come out," he groaned. "I couldn't make any excuse or explanation--anyhow! What's to be done?"

"You should ha' had naught to do wi' that Pratt!" exclaimed Mrs. Murgatroyd. "A scoundrelly fellow, to come and tempt poor folk to do his dirty work! Where's the money?"

"Locked up!" answered Murgatroyd. "I haven't touched a penny of it. I thought I'd wait a bit and see if aught happened. But he assured me it was all right, and you know as well as I do that a hundred pound doesn't come our way every day. We want money!"

"Not at that price!" said his wife. "You can pay too much for money, my lad! I wish you 'd told me what that Pratt was after--he should have heard a bit o' my tongue! If I'd only known----"

Just then the shop door opened, and Pratt walked in. He at once saw Murgatroyd and his wife standing between shop and parlour, and realized at a glance that his secret in this instance was his no longer.

"Well?" he said, walking up to the watchmaker. "You've had Prydale here--and you'd Eldrick this morning. Of course, you knew what to say to both ?"

"I wish we'd never had you here last night, young man!" exclaimed Mrs. Murgatroyd fiercely. "What right have you to come here, making trouble for folk that's got plenty already? But at any rate, ours was honest trouble. Yours is like to land my husband in dishonesty--if it hasn't done so already! And if my husband had only spoken to me----"

"Just let your husband speak a bit now," interrupted Pratt, almost insolently. "It's you that's making all the trouble or noise, anyhow! There's naught to fuss about, missis. What's upset you, Murgatroyd?"

"They're going to the Royal Atlantic people," muttered the watchmaker. "Of course, it'll all come out, then. They know that I never booked any Parsons--nor anybody else for that matter--last November. You should ha' thought o' that!"

Pratt realized that the man was right. He had never thought of that--never anticipated that inquiry would go beyond Murgatroyd. But his keen wits at once set to work.

"What's the system ?" he asked quickly. "Tell me--what's done when you book anybody like that? Come on!--explain, quick!"

Murgatroyd turned to a drawer and pulled out a book and some papers. "It's simple enough," he said. "I've this book of forms, d'ye see? I fill up this form--sort of ticket or pass for the passenger, and hand it to him--it's a receipt as well, to him. Then I enter the same particulars on that counterfoil. Then I fill up one of these papers, giving just the same particulars, and post it at once to the Company with the passage money, less my commission. When one of these books is finished, I return the counterfoils to Liverpool--they check 'em. Prydale's up to all that. He asked to see the counterfoil in this case. I had to say I hadn't got it--I'd sent it to the Company. Of course, he'll find out that I didn't."

"Lies!" said Mrs. Murgatroyd, vindictively. "And they didn't start wi' us neither!"

"Who was that other man with Prydale?" asked Pratt.

"London detective, I should say," answered the watchmaker. "And judging by the way he watched me, a sharp 'un, too!"

"What impression did you get--altogether?" demanded Pratt.

"Why!--that they're going to sift this affair--whatever it is--right down to the bottom!" exclaimed Murgatroyd. "They're either going to find Parrawhite or get to know what became of him. That's my impression. And what am I going to do, now! This'll lose me what bit of business I've done with yon shipping firm."

"Nothing of the sort!" answered Pratt scornfully. "Don't be a fool! You're all right. You listen to me. You write--straight off--to the Royal Atlantic. Tell 'em you had some inquiry made about a man named Parsons, who booked a passage with you for New York last November. Say that on looking up your books you found that you unaccountably forgot to send them the forms for him and his passage money. Make out a form for that date, and crumple it up--as if it had been left lying in a drawer. Enclose the money in it--here, I'll give you ten pounds to cover it," he went on, drawing a bank-note from his purse. "Get it off at once--you've time now--plenty--to catch the night-mail at the General. And then, d'ye see, you're all right. It's only a case then--as far as you're concerned--of forgetfulness. What's that?--we all forget something in business, now and then. They'll overlook that--when they get the money."

"Aye, but you're forgetting something now!" remarked Murgatroyd. "You're forgetting this--no such passenger ever went! They'll know that by their passenger lists."

"What the devil has that to do with it?" snarled Pratt impatiently. "What the devil do we care whether any such passenger went or not? All that you're concerned about is to prove that you issued a ticket to Parrawhite, under the name of Parsons. What's it matter to you where Parrawhite, alias Parsons, went, when he'd once left your shop? You naturally thought he'd go straight to the Lancashire and Yorkshire Station, on his way to Liverpool and New York! But, for aught you know, he may have fallen down a drain pipe in the next street! Don't you see, man? There's nothing, there's nobody, not all the detectives in London and Barford, can prove that you didn't issue a ticket to Parrawhite on that date? It isn't up to you to prove that you did!--it's up to them to prove that you didn't! And--they can't. It's impossible. You get that letter off--at once--to Liverpool, with that money inside it, and you're as safe as houses--and your hundred pounds as well. Get it done! And if those chaps come asking any more questions, tell 'em you're not going to answer a single one! Mind you!--do what I tell you, and you're safe!"

With that Pratt walked out of the shop and went off towards the centre of the town, inwardly raging and disturbed. It was very evident that these people meant to find Parrawhite, alive or dead; evident, too, that they had called in the aid of the Barford police. And in spite of all his assurances to the watchmaker and his suggestion for the next move, Pratt was far from easy about the whole matter. He would have been easier if he had known who Prydale's companion was--probably he was, as Murgatroyd had suggested, a London detective who might have been making inquiries in the town for some time and knew much more than he, Pratt, could surmise. That was the devil of the whole thing!--in Pratt's opinion. Adept himself in working underground, he feared people who adopted the same tactics. What was this stranger chap after? What did he know? What was he doing? Had he let Eldrick know anything? Was there a web of detectives already being spun around himself? Was that silly, unfortunate affair with Parrawhite being slowly brought to light--to wreck him on the very beginning of what he meant to be a brilliant career? He cursed Parrawhite again and again as he left Peel Row behind him.

The events of the day had made Pratt cautious as well as anxious. He decided to keep away from his lodgings that night, and when he reached the centre of the town he took a room at a quiet hotel. He was up early next morning; he had breakfasted by eight o'clock; by half-past eight he was at his office. And in his letter-box he found one letter--a thickish package which had not come by post, but had been dropped in by hand, and was merely addressed to Mr. Pratt.

Pratt tore that package open with a conviction of imminent disaster. He pulled out a sheet of cheap note-paper--and a wad of bank-notes. His face worked curiously as he read a few lines, scrawled in illiterate, female handwriting.

"MR PRATT,--My husband and me don't want any more to do with either you or your money which it is enclosed. Been honest up to now though poor, and intending to remain so our purpose is to make a clean breast of everything to the police first thing tomorrow morning for which you have nobody but yourself to blame for wickedness in tempting poor people to do wrong.

"Yours, MRS. MURGATROYD."