Chapter XXVIII. The Woman in Black
 

Nesta Mallathorpe, who had just arrived in Barford when Eldrick caught sight of her, was seriously startled as he and Collingwood came running up to her carriage. The solicitor entered it without ceremony or explanation, and turning to the coachman bade him drive back to Normandale as fast as he could make his horses go. Meanwhile Collingwood turned to Nesta. "Don't be alarmed!" he said. "Something is happening at the Grange--your mother has just telephoned to the police here to go there at once--there they are--in front of us, in that car!"

"Did my mother say if she was in danger?" demanded Nesta.

"She can't be!" exclaimed Eldrick, turning from the coachman, as the horses were whipped round and the carriage moved off. "She evidently gave orders for the message. No--Pratt's there! And--but of course, you don't know--the police want Pratt. They've been searching for him since noon. He's wanted for murder!"

"Don't frighten Miss Mallathorpe," said Collingwood. "The murder has nothing to do with present events," he went on reassuringly. "It's something that happened some time ago. Don't be afraid about your mother--there are plenty of people round her, you know."

"I can't help feeling anxious if Pratt is there," she answered. "How did he come to be there? It's not an hour since I left home. This is all some of Esther Mawson's work! And we shall have to wait nearly an hour before we know what is going on!--it's all uphill work to Normandale, and the horses can't do it in the time."

"Eldrick!" said Collingwood, as the carriage came abreast of the Central Station and a long line of motorcars. "Stop the coachman! Let's get one of those cars--we shall get to Normandale twice as quickly. The main thing is to relieve Miss Mallathorpe of anxiety. Now!" he went on, as they hastily left the carriage and transferred themselves to a car quickly scented by Eldrick as the most promising of the lot. "Tell the driver to go as fast as he can--the other car's not very far in front--tell him to catch it up."

Eldrick leaned over and gave his orders.

"I've told him not only to catch him up, but to get in front of 'em," he said, settling down again in his seat. "This is a better car than theirs, and we shall be there first. Now, Miss Mallathorpe, don't you bother--this is probably going to be the clearing-up point of everything. One feels certain, at any rate--Pratt has reached the end of his tether!"

"If I seem to bother," replied Nesta, "it's because I know that he and Esther Mawson are at Normandale--working mischief."

"We shall be there in half an hour," said Collingwood, as their own car ran past that in which the detectives and Byner were seated. "They can't do much mischief in that time."

None of the three spoke again until the car pulled up suddenly at the gates of Normandale Park. The lodge-keeper, an old man, coming out to open them, approached the door of the car on seeing Nesta within.

"There's a young woman just gone up to the house that wants to see you very particular, miss," he said. "I tell'd her that you'd gone to Barford, but she said she'd come a long way, and she'd wait till you come back. She's going across the park there--crossin' yon path."

He pointed over the level sward to the slight figure of a woman in black, who was obviously taking a near cut up to the Grange. Nesta looked wonderingly across the park as the car cleared the gate and went on up the drive.

"Who can she be?" she said musingly. "A woman from a long way--to see me?"

"She'll get to the house soon after we reach it," said Eldrick. "Let's attend to this more pressing business first. We should know what's afoot here in a minute or two."

But it was somewhat difficult to make out or to discover what really was afoot. The car stopped at the hall door: the second car came close behind it; Nesta, Collingwood, Eldrick, Byner, and the detectives poured into the hall--encountered a much mystified-looking butler, a couple of footmen, and the groom whose services Esther Mawson had requisitioned, and who, weary of waiting for her, had come up to the house.

"What's all this?" asked Eldrick, taking the situation into his own hands. "What's the matter? Why did you send for the police?"

"Mrs. Mallathorpe's orders, sir," answered the butler, with an apologetic glance at his young mistress. "Really, sir, I don't know--exactly--what is the matter! We are all so confused! What happened was, that not very long after Miss Mallathorpe had left for town in the carriage, Esther Mawson, the maid, came downstairs from Mrs. Mallathorpe's room, and was crossing the lower part of the hall, when Mrs, Mallathorpe suddenly appeared up there and called to me and James to stop her and lock her up, as she'd stolen money and jewels! We were to lock her up and telephone for the police, sir, and to add that Mr. Pratt was here."

"Well?" demanded Eldrick.

"We did lock her up, sir! She's in my pantry," continued the butler, ruefully. "We've got her in there because there are bars to the windows--she can't get out of that. A terrible time we had, too, sir--she fought us like--like a maniac, protesting all the time that Mrs. Mallathorpe had given her what she had on her. Of course, sir, we don't know what she may have on her--we simply obeyed Mrs. Mallathorpe."

"Where is Mrs. Mallathorpe?" asked Collingwood. "Is she safe?"

"Oh, quite safe, sir!" replied the butler. "She returned to her room after giving those orders. Mrs. Mallathorpe appeared to be--quite calm, sir."

Prydale pushed himself forward--unceremoniously and insistently.

"Keep that woman locked up!" he said. "First of all--where's Pratt?"

"Mrs. Mallathorpe said he would be found in a room in the old part of the house," answered the butler, shaking his head as if he were thoroughly mystified. "She said you would find him fast asleep--Mawson had drugged him!"

Prydale looked at Byner and at his fellow-detectives. Then he turned to the butler.

"Come on!" he said brusquely. "Take us there at once!" He glanced at Eldrick. "I'm beginning to see through it, Mr. Eldrick!" he whispered. "This maid's caught Pratt for us. Let's hope he's still----"

But before he could say more, and just as the butler opened a door which led into a corridor at the rear of the hall, a sharp crack which was unmistakably that of a revolver, rang through the house, waking equally sharp echoes in the silent room. And at that, Nesta hurried up the stairway to her mother's apartment, and the men, after a hurried glance at each other, ran along the corridor after the butler and the footmen.

Pratt came out of his stupor much sooner than Esther Mawson had reckoned on. According to her previous experiments with the particular drug which she had administered to him, he ought to have remained in a profound and an undisturbed slumber until at least five o'clock. But he woke at four--woke suddenly, sharply, only conscious at first of a terrible pain in his head, which kept him groaning and moaning in his chair for a minute or two before he fairly realized where he was and what had happened. As the pain became milder and gave way to a dull throbbing and a general sense of discomfort, he looked round out of aching eyes and saw the bottle of sherry. And so dull were his wits that his only thought at first was that the wine had been far stronger than he had known, and that he had drunk far too much of it, and that it had sent him to sleep--and just then his wandering glance fell on some papers which Esther Mawson had taken from one of his pockets and thrown aside as of no value.

He leapt to his feet, trembling and sweating. His hands, shaking as if smitten with a sudden palsy, went to his pockets--he tore off his coat and turned his pockets out, as if touch and feeling were not to be believed, and his eyes must see that there was really nothing there. Then he snatched up the papers on the floor and found nothing but letters, and odd scraps of unimportant memoranda. He stamped his feet on those things, and began to swear and curse, and finally to sob and whine. The shock of his discovery had driven all his stupefaction away by that time, and he knew what had happened. And his whining and sobbing was not that of despair, but the far worse and fiercer sobbing and whining of rage and terrible anger. If the woman who had tricked him had been there he would have torn her limb from limb, and have glutted himself with revenge. But--he was alone.

And presently, after moving around his prison more like a wild beast than a human being, his senses having deserted him for a while, he regained some composure, and glanced about him for means of escape. He went to the door and tried it. But the old, substantial oak stood firm and fast--nothing but a crow-bar would break that door. And so he turned to the mullioned window, set in a deep recess.

He knew that it was thirty or forty feet above the level of the ground--but there was much thick ivy growing on the walls of Normandale Grange, and it might be possible to climb down by its aid. With a great effort he forced open one of the dirt-encrusted sashes and looked out--and in the same instant he drew in his head with a harsh groan. The window commanded a full view of the hall door--and he had seen Prydale, and two other detectives, and the stranger from London whom he believed to be a detective, hurrying from their motorcar into the house.

There was but one thing for it, now. Esther Mawson had robbed him of everything that was on him in the way of papers and money. But in his hip-pocket she had left a revolver which Pratt had carried, always loaded, for some time. And now, without the least hesitation, he drew it out and sent one of its bullets through his brain.

       *       *       *       *       *

Eldrick and Collingwood, returning to the hall from the room in which they and the detectives had found Pratt's dead body, stood a little later in earnest conversation with Prydale, who had just come there from an interview with Esther Mawson. Nesta Mallathorpe suddenly called to them from the stairs, at the same time beckoning them to go up to her.

"Will you come with me and speak to my mother?" she said. "She knows you are here, and she wants to say something about what has happened--something about that document which Pratt said he possessed."

Eldrick and Collingwood exchanged glances without speaking. They followed Nesta into her mother's sitting-room. And instead of the semi-invalid whom they had expected to find there, they saw a woman who had evidently regained not only her vivacity and her spirits but her sense of authority and her inclination to exercise it.

"I am sorry that you gentlemen should have been drawn into all this wretched business!" she exclaimed, as she pointed the two men to chairs. "Everything must seem very strange, and indeed have seemed so for some time. But I have been the victim of as bad a scoundrel as ever lived--I'm not going to be so hypocritical as to pretend that I'm sorry he's dead--I'm not! I only wish he'd met his proper fate--on the scaffold. I don't know what you may have heard, or gathered--my daughter herself, from what she tells me, has only the vaguest notions--but I wanted to tell you, Mr. Eldrick, and you, Mr. Collingwood--seeing that you're one a solicitor and the other a barrister, that Pratt invented a most abominable plot against me, which, of course, hasn't a word of truth in it, yet was so clever that----"

Eldrick suddenly raised his hand.

"Mrs. Mallathorpe!" he said quietly. "I think you had better let me speak before you go any further. Perhaps we--Mr. Collingwood and I--know more than you think. Don't trifle, Mrs. Mallathorpe, for your own and your daughter's sake! Tell the truth--and answer a plain question, which I assure you, is asked in your own interest. What have you done with John Mallathorpe's will?"

Collingwood, anxious for Nesta, was watching her closely, and now he saw her turn a startled and inquiring look on her mother, who, in her turn, dashed a surprised glance at Eldrick. But if Mrs. Mallathorpe was surprised, she was also indignant, or she simulated indignation, and she replied to the solicitor's question with a sharp retort.

"What do you mean?--John Mallathorpe's will!" she exclaimed. "What do I know of John Mallathorpe's will? There never was----"

"Mrs. Mallathorpe!" interrupted Eldrick. "Don't! I'm speaking in your interest, I tell you! There was a will! It was made on the morning of John Mallathorpe's death. It was found by Mr. Collingwood's late grandfather, Antony Bartle: when he died suddenly in my office, it fell into Pratt's hands. That is the document which Pratt held over you--and not an hour ago, Esther Mawson took it from Pratt, and she gave it to you. Again I ask you--what have you done with it?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe hesitated a moment. Then she suddenly faced Eldrick with a defiant look. "Let them--let everybody--do what they like!" she exclaimed. "It's burnt! I threw it in that fire as soon as I got it! And now----"

Nesta interrupted her mother.

"Does any one know the terms of that will?" she asked, looking at Eldrick. "Tell me!--if you know. Hush!" she went on, as Mrs. Mallathorpe tried to speak again. "I will know!"

"Yes!" answered Eldrick. "Esther Mawson knows them. She read the will carefully. She told Prydale just now what they were. With the exception of three legacies of ten thousand pounds each to your mother, your brother, and yourself, John Mallathorpe left everything he possessed to the town of Barford for an educational trust."

"Then," asked Nesta quietly, as she made a peremptory sign to her mother to be silent, "we--never had any right to be here--at all?"

"I'm afraid not," replied Eldrick.

"Then of course we shall go," said Nesta. "That's certain! Do you hear that, mother? That's my decision. It's final!"

"You can do what you like," retorted Mrs. Mallathorpe sullenly. "I am not going to be frightened by anything that Esther Mawson says. Nor by what you say!" she continued, turning on Eldrick. "All that has got to be proved. Who can prove it? What can prove it? Do you think I am going to give up my rights without fighting for them? I shall swear that every word of Esther Mawson's is a lie! No one can bring forward a will that doesn't exist. And what concern is it of yours, Mr. Eldrick? What right have you?"

"You are quite right, Mrs. Mallathorpe," said Eldrick. "It is no concern of mine. And so----"

He turned to the door--and as he turned the door opened, to admit the old butler who looked apologetically but earnestly at Nesta as he stepped forward.

"A Mrs. Gaukrodger wishes to see you on very particular business," he murmured. "She's been waiting some little time--something, she says, about some papers she has just found--belonging to the late Mr. John Mallathorpe."

Collingwood, who was standing close to Nesta, caught all the butler said.

"Gaukrodger!" he exclaimed, with a quick glance at Eldrick. "That was the name of the manager--a witness. See the woman at once," he whispered to Nesta.

"Bring Mrs. Gaukrodger in, Dickenson," said Nesta. "Stay--I'll come with you, and bring her in myself."

She returned a moment later with a slightly built, rather careworn woman dressed in deep mourning--the woman in black whom they had seen crossing the park--who looked nervously round her as she entered.

"What is it you have for me, Mrs. Gaukrodger?" asked Nesta. "Papers belonging to the late Mr. John Mallathorpe? How--where did you get them?"

Mrs. Gaukrodger drew a large envelope from under her cloak. "This, miss," she answered. "One paper--I only found it this morning. In this way," she went on, addressing herself to Nesta. "When my husband was killed, along with Mr. John Mallathorpe, they, of course, brought home the clothes he was wearing. There were a lot of papers in the pockets of the coat--two pockets full of them. And I hadn't heart or courage to look at them at that time, miss!--I couldn't, and I locked them up in a box. I never looked at them until this very day--but this morning I happened to open that box, and I saw them, and I thought I'd see what they were. And this was one--you see, it's in a plain envelope--it was sealed, but there's no writing on it. I cut the envelope open, and drew the paper out, and I saw at once it was Mr. John Mallathorpe's will--so I came straight to you with it."

She handed the envelope over to Nesta, who at once gave it to Eldrick. The solicitor hastily drew out the enclosure, glanced it over, and turned sharply to Collingwood with a muttered exclamation.

"Good gracious!" he said. "That man Cobcroft was right! There was a duplicate! And here it is!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe had come nearer. The sight of the half sheet of foolscap in Eldrick's hands seemed to fascinate her. And the expression of her face as she came close to his side was so curious that the solicitor involuntarily folded up the will and hastily put it behind his back--he had not only seen that expression but had caught sight of Mrs. Mallathorpe's twitching fingers.

"Is--that--that--another will?" she whispered. "John Mallathorpe's?"

"Precisely the same--another copy--duly signed and witnessed!" answered Eldrick firmly. "What you foolishly did was done for nothing. And--it's the most fortunate thing in the world, Mrs. Mallathorpe, that this has turned up!--most fortunate for you!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe steadied herself on the edge of the table and looked at him fixedly. "Everything'll have to be given up?" she asked.

"The terms of this will will be carried out," answered Eldrick.

"Will--will they make me give up--what we've--saved?" she whispered.

"Mother!" said Nesta appealingly. "Don't! Come away somewhere and let me talk to you--come!"

But Mrs. Mallathorpe shook off her daughter's hand and turned again to Eldrick.

"Will they?" she demanded. "Answer!"

"I don't think you'll find the trustees at all hard when it comes to a question of account," answered Eldrick. "They'll probably take matters over from now and ignore anything that's happened during the past two years."

Again Nesta tried to lead her mother away, and again Mrs. Mallathorpe pushed the appealing hand from her. All her attention was fixed on Eldrick. "And--and will the police give me--now--what they found on that woman?" she whispered.

"I have no doubt they will," replied Eldrick. "It's--yours."

Mrs. Mallathorpe drew a sigh of relief. She looked at the solicitor steadily for a moment--then without another word she turned and went away--to find Prydale.

Eldrick turned to Nesta.

"Don't forget," he said in a low voice, "it's a terrible blow to her, and she's been thinking of your interests! Leave her alone for a while--she'll get used to the altered circumstances. I'm sorry for her--and for you!"

But Nesta made a sign of dissent.

"There's no need to be sorry for me, Mr. Eldrick," she answered. "It's a greater relief than you can realize." She turned from him and went over to Mrs. Gaukrodger who had watched this scene without fully comprehending it. "Come with me," she said. "You look very tired and you must have some tea and rest awhile--come now."

Eldrick and Collingwood, left alone, looked at each, other in silence for a moment. Then the solicitor shook his head expressively.

"Well, that's over!" he exclaimed. "I must go back and hand this will over to the two trustees. But you, Collingwood--stay here a bit--if ever that girl needs company and help, it's now!"

"I'm stopping," said Collingwood.

He remained for a time where Eldrick left him; at last he went down to the hail and out into the gardens. And presently Nesta came to him there, and as if with a mutual understanding they walked away into the nearer stretches of the park. Normandale had never looked more beautiful than it did that afternoon, and in the midst of a silence which up to then neither of them had cared to break, Collingwood suddenly turned to the girl who had just lost it.

"Are you sure that you won't miss all this--greatly?" he asked. "Just think!"

"I'd rather lose more than this, however fond I'd got of it, than go through what I've gone through lately," she answered frankly. "Do you know what I want to do?"

"No--I think not," he said. "What?"

"If it's possible--to forget all about this," she replied. "And--if that's also possible--to help my mother to forget, too. Don't think too hardly of her--I don't suppose any of us know how much all this place--and the money--meant to her."

"I've got no hard thoughts about her," said Collingwood. "I'm sorry for her. But--is it too soon to talk about the future?"

Nesta looked at him in a way which showed him that she only half comprehended the question. But there was sufficient comprehension in her eyes to warrant him in taking her hands in his.

"You know why I didn't go to India?" he said, bending his face to hers.

"I--guessed!" she answered shyly.

Then Collingwood, at this suddenly arrived supreme moment, became curiously bereft of speech. And after a period of silence, during which, being in the shadow of a grove of beech-trees which kindly concealed them from the rest of the world, they held each other's hands, all that he could find to say was one word.

"Well?"

Nesta laughed.

"Well--what?" she whispered.

Collingwood suddenly laughed too and put his arm round her.

"It's no good!" he said. "I've often thought of what I'd to say to you--and now I've forgotten all. Shall I say it all at once!"

"Wouldn't it be best?" she murmured with another laugh.

"Then--you're going to marry me?" he asked.

"Am I to answer--all at once?" she said.

"One word will do!" he exclaimed, drawing her to him.

"Ah!" she whispered as she lifted her face to his. "I couldn't say it all in one word. But--we've lots of time before us!"

THE END