Chapter XXV. Dry Sherry
 

Pratt wasted no time in cursing Mrs. Murgatroyd. There would be plenty of opportunity for such relief to his feelings later on. Just then he had other matters to occupy him--fully. He tore the indignant letter to shreds; he hastily thrust the bank-notes into one pocket and drew his keys from another. Within five minutes he had taken from his safe a sealed packet, which he placed in an inside pocket of his coat, and had left his office--for the last time, as he knew very well. That part of the game was up--and it was necessary to be smart in entering on another phase of it.

Since Eldrick's visit of the previous day, Pratt had been prepared for all eventuality. He had made ready for flight. And he was not going empty-handed. He had a considerable amount of Mrs. Mallathorpe's money in his possession; by obtaining her signature to one or two documents he could easily obtain much more in London, at an hour's notice. Those documents were all ready, and in the sealed packet which he had just taken from the safe; in it, too, were some other documents--John Mallathorpe's will; the letter which Mrs. Mallathorpe had written to him on the evening previous to her son's fatal accident; and the power of attorney which Pratt had obtained from her at his first interview after that occurrence. All was ready--and now there was nothing to do but to get to Normandale Grange, see Mrs. Mallathorpe, and--vanish. He had planned it all out, carefully, when he perceived the first danger signals, and knew that his other plans and schemes were doomed to failure. Half an hour at Normandale Grange--a journey to London--a couple of hours in the City--and then the next train to the Continent, on his way to regions much further off. Here, things had turned out badly, unexpectedly badly--but he would carry away considerable, easily transported wealth, to a new career in a new country.

Pratt began his flight in methodical fashion. He locked up his office, and left the building by a back entrance which took him into a network of courts and alleys at the rear of the business part of Barford. He made his way in and out of these places until he reached a bicycle-dealer's shop in an obscure street, whereat he had left a machine of his own on the previous evening under the excuse of having it thoroughly cleaned and oiled. It was all ready for him on his arrival, and he presently mounted it and rode away through the outskirts of the town, carefully choosing the less frequented streets and roads. He rode on until he was clear of Barford: until, in fact, he was some miles from it, and had reached a village which was certainly not on the way to Normandale. And then, at the post-office he dismounted, and going inside, wrote out and dispatched a telegram. It was a brief message containing but three words--"One as usual"--and it was addressed Esther Mawson, The Grange, Normandale. This done, he remounted his bicycle, rode out of the village, and turned across country in quite a different direction. It was not yet ten o'clock--he had three hours to spare before the time came for keeping the appointment which he had just made.

At an early stage of his operations, Pratt had found that even the cleverest of schemers cannot work unaided. It had been absolutely necessary to have some tool close at hand to Normandale Grange and its inhabitants; to have some person there upon whom he could depend for news. He had found that person, that tool, in Esther Mawson, who, as Mrs. Mallathorpe's maid, had opportunities which he at once recognized as being likely to be of the greatest value to him. The circumstances of Harper Mallathorpe's death had thrown Pratt and the maid together, and he had quickly discovered that she was to be bought, and would do anything for money. He had soon come to an understanding with her; soon bargained with her, and made her a willing accomplice in certain of his schemes, without letting her know their full meaning and extent: all, indeed, that she had learned from Pratt was that he had some considerable hold on her mistress.

But it is dangerous work to play with edged tools, and if Pratt had only known it, he was running great risks in using Esther Mawson as a semi-accomplice. Esther Mawson was in constant touch with her mistress, and Mrs. Mallathorpe, afraid of her daughter, and not greatly in sympathy with her, badly needed a confidante. Little by little the mistress began to confide in the maid, and before long Esther Mawson knew the secret--and thenceforward she played a double game. Pratt found her useful in arranging meetings with Mrs. Mallathorpe unknown to Nesta, and he believed her to be devoted to him. But the truth was that Esther Mawson had only one object of devotion--herself--and she was waiting and watching for an opportunity to benefit that object--at Pratt's expense.

Pratt knew nothing of this as he slowly made his way to Normandale that morning. Having plenty of time he went by devious and lonely roads and by-lanes. Eventually he came to the boundary of Normandale Park at a point far away from the Grange. There he dismounted, hid his bicycle in a coppice wherein he had often left it before, and went on towards the house through the woods and plantations. He knew every yard of the ground he traversed, and was skilled in taking cover if he saw any sign of woodman or gamekeeper. And in the end, just as one o'clock chimed from the clock over the stables, he came to a quiet spot in the shrubberies behind the Grange, and found Esther Mawson waiting for him in an old summer-house in which they had met on previous and similar occasions.

Esther Mawson immediately realized that something unusual was in the air. Clever as Pratt was at concealing his feelings, she was cleverer in seeing small signs, and she saw that this was no ordinary visit.

"Anything wrong?" she asked at once.

"Bit of bother--nothing much--it'll blow over," answered Pratt, who knew that a certain amount of candour was necessary in dealing with this woman. "But--I shall have to be away for a bit--week or two, perhaps."

"You want to see her?" inquired Esther.

"Of course! I've some papers for her to sign," replied Pratt. "How do things stand? Coast clear?"

"Miss Mallathorpe's going into Barford after lunch," answered Esther. "She'll be driving in about half-past two. I can manage it then. How long shall you want to be with her?"

"Oh, a quarter of an hour'll do," said Pratt. "Ten minutes, if it comes to that."

"And after that?" asked Esther.

"Then I want to get a train at Scaleby," replied Pratt, mentioning a railway junction which lay ten miles across country in another direction. "So make it as soon after two-thirty as you can."

"You can see her as soon as Miss Mallathorpe's gone," said Esther. "You'd better come into the house--I've got the key of the turret door, and all's clear--the servants are all at dinner."

"I could do with something myself," observed Pratt, who, in his anxiety, had only made a light breakfast that morning. "Can it be managed?"

"I'll manage it," she answered. "Come on--now."

Behind the summer-house in which they had met a narrow path led through the shrubberies to an old part of the Grange which was never used, and was, in fact, partly ruinous. Esther Mawson led the way along this until she and Pratt came to a turret in the grey walls, in the lower story of which a massive oaken door, heavily clamped with iron, gave entrance to a winding stair, locked it from inside when she and Pratt had entered, and preceded her companion up the stair, and across one or two empty and dust-covered chambers to a small room in which a few pieces of ancient furniture were slowly dropping to decay. Pratt had taken refuge in this room before, and he sat down in one of the old chairs and mopped his forehead.

"I want something to drink, above everything," he remarked. "What can you get?"

"Nothing but wine," answered Esther Mawson. "As much as you like of that, because I've a stock that's kept up in Mrs. Mallathorpe's room. I couldn't get any ale without going to the butler. I can get wine and sandwiches without anybody knowing."

"That'll do," said Pratt. "What sort of wine?"

"Port, sherry, claret," she replied. "Whichever you like."

"Sherry, then," answered Pratt. "Bring a bottle if you can get it--I want a good drink."

The woman went away--through the disused part of the old house into the modern portion. She went straight to a certain store closet and took from it a bottle of old dry sherry which had been brought there from a bin in the cellars--it was part of a quantity of fine wine laid down by John Mallathorpe, years before, and its original owner would have been disgusted to think that it should ever be used for the mere purpose of quenching thirst. But Esther Mawson had another purpose in view, with respect to that bottle. Carrying it to her own sitting-room, she carefully cut off the thick mass of sealing-wax at its neck, drew the cork, and poured a little of the wine away. And that done, she unlocked a small box which stood on a corner of her dressing table, and took from it a glass phial, half full of a colourless liquid. With steady hands and sure fingers, she dropped some of that liquid into the wine, carefully counting the drops. Then she restored the phial to its hiding-place and re-locked the box--after which, taking up a spoon which lay on her table, she poured out a little of the sherry and smelled and tasted it. No smell--other than that which ought to be there; no taste--other than was proper. Pratt would suspect nothing even if he drunk the whole bottle.

Esther Mawson had anticipated Pratt's desires in the way of refreshment, and she now went to a cupboard and took from it a plate of sandwiches, carefully swathed in a napkin. Carrying these in one hand, and the bottle of sherry and a glass in the other, she stole quietly back to the disused part of the house, and set her provender before its expectant consumer. Pratt poured out a glassful of the sherry, and drank it eagerly.

"Good stuff that!" he remarked, smacking his lips. "Some of old John Mallathorpe's--no doubt."

"It was here when we came, anyhow," replied Esther. "Well--I shall have to go. You'll be all right until I come back."

"What time do you think it'll be?" asked Pratt. "Make it as soon as the coast's clear--I want to be off."

"As soon as ever she's gone," agreed Esther. "I heard her order the carriage for half-past two."

"And no fear of anybody else being about?" asked Pratt. "That butler man, for instance? Or servants?"

"I'll see to it," replied Esther reassuringly. "I'll lock this door and take the key until I come back--make yourself comfortable."

She locked Pratt in the old room and went off, and the willing prisoner ate his sandwiches and drank his sherry, and looked out of a mullioned window on the wide stretches of park and coppice and the breezy moorlands beyond. He indulged in some reflections--not wholly devoid of sentiment. He had cherished dreams of becoming the virtual owner of Normandale. Always confident in his own powers, he had believed that with time and patience he could have persuaded Nesta Mallathorpe to marry him--why not? Now--all owing to that cursed and unfortunate contretemps with Parrawhite, that seemed utterly impossible--all he could do now was to save himself--and to take as much as he could get. More than once that morning, as he made his way across country, he had remembered Parrawhite's advice to take cash and be done with it--perhaps, he reflected, it might have been better. Still--when he presently began his final retreat, he would carry away with him a lot of the Mallathorpe money.

But before long Pratt indulged in no more reflections--sentiment or practical. He had eaten all his sandwiches; he had drunk three-quarters of the bottle of sherry. And suddenly he felt unusually drowsy, and he laid his head back in his big chair, and fell soundly asleep.