Chapter XXVII. Restored to Energy
 

Esther Mawson, leaving Pratt to enjoy his sherry and sandwiches at his leisure, went away through the house, out into the gardens, and across the shrubbery to the stables. The coachman and grooms were at dinner--with the exception of one man who lived in a cottage at the entrance to the stable-yard. This was the very man she wanted to see, and she found him in the saddle-room, and beckoned him to its door.

"Mrs. Mallathorpe wants me to go over to Scaleby on an errand for her this afternoon," she said. "Can you have the dog-cart ready, at the South Garden gate at three o'clock sharp? And--without saying anything to the coachman? It's a private errand."

Of late this particular groom had received several commissions of this sort, and being a sharp fellow he had observed that they were generally given to him when Miss Mallathorpe was out.

"All right," he answered. "The young missis is going out in the carriage at half-past two. South Garden gate--three sharp. Anybody but you?"

"Only me," replied Esther. "Don't say anything to anybody about where we're going. Get the dog-cart ready after the carriage has gone."

The groom nodded in comprehension, and Esther went back to the house and to her own room. She ought at that time of day to have been eating her dinner with the rest of the upper servants, but she had work to do which was of much more importance than the consumption of food and drink. There was going to be a flight that afternoon--but it would not be Pratt who would undertake it. Esther Mawson had carefully calculated all her chances as soon as Pratt told her that he was going to be away for a while. She knew that Pratt would not have left Barford for any indefinite period unless something had gone seriously wrong. But she knew more--by inference and intuition. If Pratt was going away--rather, since he was going away, he would have on his person things of value--documents, money. She meant to gain possession of everything that he had; she meant to have a brief interview with Mrs. Mallathorpe; then she meant to drive to Scaleby--and to leave that part of the country just as thoroughly and completely as Pratt had meant to leave it. And now in her own room she was completing her preparations. There was little to do. She knew that if her venture came off successfully, she could easily afford to leave her personal possessions behind her, and that she would be all the more free and unrestricted in her movements if she departed without as much as a change of clothes and linen. And so by two o'clock she had arrayed herself in a neat and unobtrusive tailor-made travelling costume, had put on an equally neat and plain hat, had rolled her umbrella, and laid it, her gloves, and a cloak where they could be readily picked up, and had attached to her slim waist a hand-bag--by means of a steel chain which she secured by a small padlock as soon as she had arranged it to her satisfaction. She was not the sort of woman to leave a hand-bag lying about in a railway carriage at any time, but in this particular instance she was not going to run any risk of even a moment's forgetfulness.

Everything was in readiness by twenty minutes past two, and she took up her position in a window from which she could see the front door of the house. At half-past two the carriage and its two fine bay horses came round from the stables; a minute or two later Nesta Mallathorpe emerged from the hall; yet another minute and the carriage was whirling down the park in the direction of Barford. And then Esther moved from the window, picked up the umbrella, the cloak, the gloves, and went off in the direction of the room wherein she had left Pratt.

No one ever went near those old rooms except on some special errand or business, and there was a dead silence all around her as she turned the key in the lock and slipped inside the door--to lock it again as soon as she had entered. There was an equally deep silence within the room--and for a moment she glanced a little fearfully at the recumbent figure in the old, deep-backed chair. Pratt had stretched himself fully in his easy quarters---his legs lay extended across the moth-eaten hearth-rug; his head and shoulders were thrown far back against the faded tapestry, and he was so still that he might have been supposed to be dead. But Esther Mawson had tried the effect of that particular drug on a good many people, and she knew that the victim in this instance was merely plunged in a sleep from which nothing whatever could wake him yet awhile. And after one searching glance at him, and one lifting of an eyelid by a practised finger, she went rapidly and thoroughly through Pratt's pockets, and within a few minutes of entering the room had cleared them of everything they contained. The sealed packet which he had taken from his safe that morning; the bank-notes which Mrs. Murgatroyd had returned in her indignant letter; another roll of notes, of considerable value, in a note-case; a purse containing notes and gold to a large amount--all those she laid one by one on a dust-covered table. And finally--and as calmly as if she were sorting linen--she swept bank-notes, gold, and purse into her steel-chained bag, and tore open the sealed envelope.

There were five documents in that envelope--Esther examined each with meticulous care. The first was an authority to Linford Pratt to sell certain shares standing in the name of Ann Mallathorpe. The second was a similar document relating to other shares: each was complete, save for Ann Mallathorpe's signature. The third document was the power of attorney which Ann Mallathorpe had given to Linford Pratt: the fourth, the letter which she had written to him on the evening before the fatal accident to Harper. And the fifth was John Mallathorpe's will.

At last she held in her hand the half-sheet of foolscap paper of which Mrs. Mallathorpe, driven to distraction, and knowing that she would get no sympathy from her own daughter, had told her. She was a woman of a quick and an understanding mind, and she had read the will through and grasped its significance as swiftly as her eyes ran over it. And those eyes turned to the unconscious Pratt with a flash of contempt--she, at any rate, would not follow his foolish example, and play for too high a stake--no, she would make hay while the sun shone its hottest! She was of the Parrawhite persuasion--better, far better one good bird in the hand than a score of possible birds in the bush.

She presently restored the five documents to the stout envelope, picked up her other belongings, and without so much as a glance at Pratt, left the room. She turned the key in the door and took it away with her. And now she went straight to a certain sitting-room which Mrs. Mallathorpe had tenanted by day ever since her illness. The final and most important stage of Esther's venture was at hand.

Mrs. Mallathorpe sat at an open window, wearily gazing out on the park. Ever since her son's death she had remained in a more or less torpid condition, rarely talking to any person except Esther Mawson: it had been manifest from the first that her daughter's presence distressed and irritated her, and by the doctor's advice Nesta had gone to her as little as possible, while taking every care to guard her and see to her comfort. All day long she sat brooding--and only Esther Mawson, now for some time in her full confidence, knew that her brooding was rapidly developing into a monomania. Mrs. Mallathorpe, indeed, had but one thought in her mind--the eventual circumventing of Pratt, and the destruction of John Mallathorpe's will.

She turned slowly as the maid came in and carefully closed the door behind her, and her voice was irritable and querulous as she at once began to complain.

"You've never been near me for two hours!" she said. "Your dinner time was over long since! I might have been wanting all sorts of things for aught you cared!"

"I've had something else to do--for you!" retorted Esther, coming close to her mistress. "Listen, now!--I've got it!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe's attitude and manner suddenly changed. She caught sight of the packet of papers in the woman's hand, and at once sprang to her feet, white and trembling. Instinctively she held out her own hands and moved a little nearer to the maid. And Esther quickly put the table between them, and shook her head.

"No--no!" she exclaimed. "No handling of anything--yet! You keep your hands off! You were ready enough to bargain with Pratt--now you'll have to bargain with me. But I'm not such a fool as he was--I'll take cash down, and be done with it."

Mrs. Mallathorpe rested her trembling hands on the table and bent forward across it.

"Is it--is it--really--the will?" she whispered hoarsely.

Instead of replying in words, Esther, taking care to keep at a safe distance behind the table, and with the door only a yard or two in her rear, drew out the documents one by one and held them up.

"The will!" she said. "Your letter to Pratt. The power of attorney. Two papers that he brought for you to sign. That's the lot! And now, as I said, we'll bargain."

"Where is--he?" asked Mrs. Mallathorpe. "How--how did you get them? Does he know--did he give them up?"

"If you want to know, he's safe and sound asleep in one of the rooms in the old part of the house," answered Esther. "I drugged him. There's something afoot--something gone wrong with his schemes--at Barford, and he came here on his way--elsewhere. And so--I took the chance. Now then--what are you going to give me?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe, whose nervous agitation was becoming more and more marked, wrung her hands.

"I've nothing to give!" she cried. "You know very well he's had the management of everything--I don't know how things are----"

"Stuff!" exclaimed Esther. "I know better than that. You've a lot of ready money in that desk there--you know you drew a lot out of the bank some time ago, and it's there now. You kept it for a contingency--the contingency's here. And--you've your rings--the diamond and ruby rings--I know what they're worth! Come on, now--I mean to have the whole lot, so it's no use hesitating."

Mrs. Mallathorpe looked at the maid's bold and resolute eyes--and then at the papers. And she glanced from eyes and papers to a bright fire which burned in the grate close by.

"You'll give everything up?" she asked nervously.

"Put those bank-notes that you've got in your desk, and those rings that are in your jewel-case, on the table between us," answered Esther, "and I'll hand over these papers on the instant! I'm not going to be such a fool as to keep them--not I! Come on, now!--isn't this the chance you've wanted?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe drew a small bunch of keys from her gown, and went over to the desk which Esther had pointed to. Within a minute she was back again at the table, a roll of bank notes in one hand, half a dozen magnificent rings in the other. She put both hands halfway across and unclasped them. And Esther Mawson, with a light laugh, threw the papers over the table, and hastily swept their price into her handbag.

Mrs. Mallathorpe's nerves suddenly became steady. With a deep sigh she caught up the various documents and looked them quickly and thoroughly over. Then she tore them into fragments and flung the fragments in the fire--and as they blazed up, she turned and looked at Esther Mawson in a way which made Esther shrink a little. But she was already at the door--and she opened it and walked out and down the stair.

She was half-way across the hall beneath, where the butler and one of the footmen were idly talking, when a sharp cry from above made her then look up. Mrs. Mallathorpe, suddenly restored to life and energy, was leaning over the balustrade.

"Stop that woman, you men!" she said. "Seize her! Fasten her up!--lock the door wherever you put her! She's stolen my rings, and a lot of money out of my desk! And telephone instantly to Barford, and tell them to send the police here--at once!"