Chapter XXVI. The Telephone Message
 

If Pratt had only known what was going on in the old quarries at Whitcliffe, about the very time that he was riding slowly out to Barford on his bicycle, he would not only have accelerated his pace, but would have taken good care to have chosen another route: he would also have made haste to exchange bicycle for railway train as quickly as possible, and to have got himself far away before anybody could begin looking for him in his usual haunts, or at places wherein there was a possibility of his being found. But Pratt knew nothing of what Byner had done. He was conscious of Byner's visit to the Green Man. He did not know what Pickard had been told by Bill Thomson. He was unaware of anything which Pickard had told to Byner. If he had known that Byner, guided by Pickard, had been to the old quarries, had fixed his inquiring eye on the shaft which was filled to its brim with water, and had got certain ideas from the mere sight of it, Pratt would have hastened to put hundreds of miles between himself and Barford as quickly as possible. But all that Pratt knew was that there was a possibility of suspicion--which might materialize eventually, but not immediately.

On the previous evening, Pratt--had he but known it--made a great mistake. Instead of going into Murgatroyd's shop after he had watched Byner and Prydale away from it--he should have followed those two astute and crafty persons, and have ascertained something of their movements. Had he done so, he would certainly not have troubled to return to Peel Row, nor to remain in Barford an hour longer than was absolutely necessary. For Pratt was sharp-witted enough when it came to a question of putting one and two together, and if he had tracked Prydale and the unknown man who was with him to a certain house whereto they repaired as soon as they quitted Murgatroyd's shop, he would have drawn an inference from the mere fact of their visit which would have thrown him into a cold sweat of fear. But Pratt, after all, was only one man, one brain, one body, and could not be in two places, nor go in two ways, at the same time. He took his own way--ignorant of his destruction.

Byner also took a way of his own. As soon as he and Prydale left Murgatroyd's shop, they chartered the first cab they met with, and ordered its driver to go to Whitcliffe Moor.

"It's the quickest thing to do--if my theory's correct," observed Byner, as they drove along, "Of course, it is all theory--mere theory! But I've grounds for it. The place--the time--mere lonely situation--that scrap iron lying about, which would be so useful in weighting a dead body!--I tell you, I shall be surprised if we don't find Parrawhite at the bottom of that water!"

"I shouldn't wonder," agreed Prydale. "One thing's very certain, as we shall prove before we're through with it--Pratt's put that poor devil Murgatroyd up to this passage-to-America business. And a bit clumsily, too--fancy Murgatroyd being no better posted up than to tell me that Parrawhite called on him at a certain hour that night!"

"But you've got to remember that Pratt didn't know of Parrawhite's affairs with Pickard, nor that he was at the Green Man at that hour," rejoined Byner. "My belief is that Pratt thinks himself safe--that he fancies he's provided for all contingencies. If things turn out as I think they will, I believe we shall find Pratt calmly seated at his desk tomorrow morning."

"Well--if things do turn out as you expect, we'll lose no time in seeking him there!" observed Prydale dryly. "We'd better arrange to get the job done first thing."

"This Mr. Shepherd'll make no objection, I suppose?" asked Byner,

"Objection! Lor' bless you--he'll love it!" exclaimed Prydale. "It'll be a bit of welcome diversion to a man like him that's naught to do. He'll object none, not be!"

Shepherd, a retired quarry-owner, who lived in a picturesque old stone house in the middle of Whitcliffe Moor, with nothing to occupy his attention but the growing of roses and vegetables, and an occasional glance at the local newspapers, listened to Prydale's request with gradually rising curiosity. Byner had at once seen that this call was welcome to this bluff and hearty Yorkshireman, who, without any question as to their business, had immediately welcomed them to his hearth and pressed liquor and cigars on them: he sized up Shepherd as a man to whom any sort of break in the placid course of retired life was a delightful event.

"A dead man i' that old shaft i' one o' my worked out quarries!" he exclaimed. "Ye don't mean to say so! An' how long d'yer think he might ha' been there, now, Prydale?"

"Some months, Mr. Shepherd," replied the detective.

"Why, then it's high time he were taken out," said Shepherd. "When might you be thinkin' o' doin' t' job, like?"

"As soon as possible," said Prydale. "Tomorrow morning, early, if that's convenient to you."

"I'll tell you what I'll do," observed the retired quarry-owner. "You leave t' job to me. I'll get two or three men first thing tomorrow morning, and we'll do it reight. You be up there by half-past eight o'clock, and we'll soon satisfy you as to whether there's owt i' t' shape of a dead man or not i' t' pit. You hev' grounds for believin' 'at theer is----what?"

"Strong grounds!" replied the detective, "and equally strong ones for believing the man came there by foul play, too."

"Say no more!" said Shepherd. "T' mystery shall be cleared up. Deary me! An' to think 'at I've walked past yon theer pit many a dozen times within this last few o' months, and nivver dreamed 'at theer wor owt in it but watter! Howivver, gentlemen, ye can put yer minds at ease--we'll investigate the circumstances, as the sayin' goes, before noon tomorrow."

"One other matter," remarked Prydale. "We want things kept quiet. We don't want all the folk of the neighbourhood round about, you know."

"Leave it to me," answered Shepherd. "There'll be me, and these men, and yourselves--and a pair of grapplin' irons. We'll do it quiet and comfortable--and we'll do it reight."

"Odd character!" remarked Byner, when he and Prydale went away.

"Useful man--for a job of that sort," said the detective laconically. "Now then--are we going to let anybody else know what we're after--Mr. Eldrick or Mr. Collingwood, for instance? Do you want them, or either of them, to be present?"

"No!" answered Byner, after a moment's reflection. "Let us see what results. We can let them know, soon enough, if we've anything to tell. But--what about Pratt?"

"Keeping an eye on him--you mean?" said Prydale. "You said just now that in your opinion we should find him at his desk."

"Just so--but that's no reason why he shouldn't be looked after tomorrow morning," answered Byner.

"All right--I'll put a man on to shadow him, from the time he leaves his lodgings until--until we want him," said the detective. "That is--if we do want him."

"It will be one of the biggest surprises I ever had in my life if we don't!" asserted Byner. "I never felt more certain of anything than I do of finding Parrawhite's body in that pit!"

It was this certainty which made Byner appear extraordinarily cool and collected, when next day, about noon, he walked into Eldrick's private room, where Collingwood was at that moment asking the solicitor what was being done. The certainty was now established, and it seemed to Byner that it would have been a queer thing if he had not always had it. He closed the door and gave the two men an informing glance.

"Parrawhite's body has been found," he said quietly.

Eldrick started in his chair, and Collingwood looked a sharp inquiry.

"Little doubt about his having been murdered, just as I conjectured," continued Byner. "And his murderer had pretty cleverly weighted his body with scrap iron, before dropping it into a pit full of water, where it might have remained for a long time undiscovered. However--that's settled!"

Eldrick got out the first question.

"Pratt?"

"Prydale's after him," answered Byner. "I expect we shall hear something in a few minutes--if he's in town. But I confess I'm a bit doubtful and anxious now, on that score. Because, when Prydale and I got down from Whitcliffe half an hour ago--where the body's now lying, at the Green Man, awaiting the inquest--we found Murgatroyd hanging about the police station. He'd come to make a clean breast of it--about Pratt. And it unfortunately turns out that Pratt saw Prydale and me go to Murgatroyd's shop last night, and afterwards went in there himself, and of course pumped Murgatroyd dry as to why we'd been."

"Why unfortunately?" asked Collingwood.

"Because that would warn Pratt that something was afoot," said Byner. "And--he may have disappeared during the night. He----"

But just then Prydale came in, shaking his head.

"I'm afraid he's off!" he announced. "I'd a man watching for him outside his lodgings from an early hour this morning, but he never came out, and finally my man made an excuse and asked for him there, and then he heard that he'd never been home last night, And his office is closed."

"What steps are you taking?" asked Byner.

"I've got men all over the place already," replied Prydale. "But--if he got off in the night, as I'm afraid he did, we shan't find him in Barford. It's a most unlucky thing that he saw us go to Murgatroyd's last evening! That, of course, would set him off: he'd know things were reaching a crisis."

Eldrick and Collingwood had arranged to lunch together that day, and they presently went off, asking the detective to keep them informed of events. But up to half-past three o 'clock they heard no more--then, as they were returning along the street Byner came running up to them.

"Prydale's just had a telephone message from the butler at Normandale!" he exclaimed. "Pratt is there!--and something extraordinary is going on: the butler wants the police. We're off at once--there's Prydale in a motor, waiting for me. Will you follow?"

He darted away again, and Eldrick looking round for a car, suddenly recognized the Mallathorpe livery.

"Great Scott!" he said. "There's Miss Mallathorpe--just driving in. Better tell her!"

A moment later, he and Collingwood had joined Nesta in her carriage, and the horses' heads were turned in the direction towards which Byner and Prydale were already hastening.