The Talleyrand Maxim by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IV. The Fortunate Possessors
Collingwood at once realized that he was in the presence of one of the two fortunate young people who had succeeded so suddenly--and, according to popular opinion, so unexpectedly--to John Mallathorpe's wealth. This was evidently Miss Nesta Mallathorpe, of whom he had heard, but whom he had never seen. She, however, was looking at him as if she knew him, and she smiled a little as she acknowledged his bow.
"My mother is out in the grounds, with my brother," she said, motioning Collingwood towards a chair. "Won't you sit down, please?--I've sent for her; she will be here in a few minutes."
Collingwood sat down; Nesta Mallathorpe sat down, too, and as they looked at each other she smiled again.
"I have seen you before, Mr. Collingwood," she said. "I knew it must be you when they brought up your card."
Collingwood used his glance of polite inquiry to make a closer inspection of his hostess. He decided that Nesta Mallathorpe was not so much pretty as eminently attractive--a tall, well-developed, warm-coloured young woman, whose clear grey eyes and red lips and general bearing indicated the possession of good health and spirits. And he was quite certain that if he had ever seen her before he would not have forgotten it.
"Where have you seen me?" he asked, smiling back at her.
"Have you forgotten the mock-trial--year before last?" she asked.
Collingwood remembered what she was alluding to. He had taken part, in company with various other law students, in a mock-trial, a breach of promise case, for the benefit of a certain London hospital, to him had fallen one of the principal parts, that of counsel for the plaintiff. "When I saw your name, I remembered it at once," she went on. "I was there--I was a probationer at St. Chad's Hospital at that time."
"Dear me!" said Collingwood, "I should have thought our histrionic efforts would have been forgotten. I'm afraid I don't remember much about them, except that we had a lot of fun out of the affair. So you were at St. Chad's?" he continued, with a reminiscence of the surroundings of the institution they were talking of. "Very different to Normandale!"
"Yes," she replied. "Very--very different to Normandale. But when I was at St. Chad's, I didn't know that I--that we should ever come to Normandale."
"And now that you are here?" he asked.
The girl looked out through the big window on the valley which lay in front of the old house, and she shook her head a little.
"It's very beautiful," she answered, "but I sometimes wish I was back at St. Chad's--with something to do. Here--there's nothing to do but to do nothing." Collingwood realized that this was not the complaint of the well-to-do young woman who finds time hang heavy--it was rather indicative of a desire for action.
"I understand!" he said. "I think I should feel like that. One wants--I suppose--is it action, movement, what is it?"
"Better call it occupation--that's a plain term," she answered. "We're both suffering from lack of occupation here, my brother and I. And it's bad for us--especially for him."
Before Collingwood could think of any suitable reply to this remarkably fresh and candid statement, the door opened, and Mrs. Mallathorpe came in, followed by her son. And the visitor suddenly and immediately noticed the force and meaning of Nesta Mallathorpe's last remark. Harper Mallathorpe, a good-looking, but not remarkably intelligent appearing young man, of about Collingwood's own age, gave him the instant impression of being bored to death; the lack-lustre eye, the aimless lounge, the hands thrust into the pockets of his Norfolk jacket as if they took refuge there from sheer idleness--all these things told their tale. Here, thought Collingwood, was a fine example of how riches can be a curse--relieved of the necessity of having to earn his daily bread by labour, Harper Mallathorpe was finding life itself laborious.
But there was nothing of aimlessness, idleness, or lack of vigour in Mrs. Mallathorpe. She was a woman of character, energy, of brains--Collingwood saw all that at one glance. A little, neat-figured, compact sort of woman, still very good-looking, still on the right side of fifty, with quick movements and sharp glances out of a pair of shrewd eyes: this, he thought, was one of those women who will readily undertake the control and management of big affairs. He felt, as Mrs. Mallathorpe turned inquiring looks on him, that as long as she was in charge of them the Mallathorpe family fortunes would be safe.
"Mother," said Nesta, handing Collingwood's card to Mrs. Mallathorpe, "this gentleman is Mr. Bartle Collingwood. He's--aren't you?--yes, a barrister. He wants to see you. Why. I don't know. I have seen Mr. Collingwood before--but he didn't remember me. Now he'll tell you what he wants to see you about."
"If you'll allow me to explain why I called on you, Mrs. Mallathorpe," said Collingwood, "I don't suppose you ever heard of me--but you know, at any rate, the name of my grandfather, Mr. Antony Bartle, the bookseller, of Barford? My grandfather is dead--he died very suddenly last night."
Mrs. Mallathorpe and Nesta murmured words of polite sympathy. Harper suddenly spoke--as if mere words were some relief to his obvious boredom.
"I heard that, this morning," he said, turning to his mother. "Hopkins told me--he was in town last night. I meant to tell you."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Mrs. Mallathorpe, glancing at some letters which stood on a rack above the mantelpiece. "Why--I had a letter from Mr. Bartle this very morning!"
"It is that letter that I have come to see you about," said Collingwood. "I only got down here from London at half-past eight this morning, and of course, I have made some inquiries about the circumstances of my grandfather's sudden death. He died very suddenly indeed at Mr. Eldrick's office. He had gone there on some business about which nobody knows nothing--he died before he could mention it. And according to his shop-boy, Jabey Naylor, the last thing he did was to write a letter to you. Now--I have reason for asking--would you mind telling me, Mrs. Mallathorpe, what that letter was about?" Mrs. Mallathorpe moved over to the hearth, and took an envelope from the rack. She handed it to Collingwood, indicating that he could open it. And Collingwood drew out one of old Bartle's memorandum forms, and saw a couple of lines in the familiar crabbed handwriting:
Collingwood handed back the letter.
"Have you any idea to what that refers?" he asked.
"Well, I think I have--perhaps," answered Mrs. Mallathorpe. "Mr. Bartle persuaded us to sell him some books--local books--which my late brother-in-law had at his office in the mill. And since then he has been very anxious to buy more local books and pamphlets about this neighbourhood, and he had some which Mr. Bartle was very anxious indeed to get hold of. I suppose he wanted to see me about that." Collingwood made no remarks for the moment. He was wondering whether or not to tell what Jabey Naylor had told him about this paper taken from the linen pocket inside the History of Barford. But Mrs. Mallathorpe's ready explanation had given him a new idea, and he rose from his chair.
"Thank you," he said. "I suppose that's it. You may think it odd that I wanted to know what he'd written about, but as it was certainly the last letter he wrote----"
"Oh, I'm quite sure it must have been that!" exclaimed Mrs. Mallathorpe. "And as I am going into Barford this afternoon, in any case, I meant to call at Mr. Bartle's. I'm sorry to hear of his death, poor old gentleman! But he was very old indeed, wasn't he?"
"He was well over eighty," replied Collingwood. "Well, thank you again--and good-bye--I have a motorcar waiting outside there, and I have much to do in Barford when I get back."
The two young people accompanied Collingwood into the hall. And Harper suddenly brightened.
"I say!" he said. "Have a drink before you go. It's a long way in and out. Come into the dining-room."
But Collingwood caught Nesta's eye, and he was quick to read a signal in it.
"No, thanks awfully!" he answered. "I won't really--I must get back--I've such a lot of things to attend to. This is a very beautiful place of yours," he went on, as Harper, whose face had fallen at the visitor's refusal, followed with his sister to where the motor-car waited. "It might be a hundred miles from anywhere."
"It's a thousand miles from anywhere!" muttered Harper. "Nothing to do here!"
"No hunting, shooting, fishing?" asked Collingwood. "Get tired of 'em? Well, why not make a private golf-links in your park? You'd get a fine sporting course round there."
"That's a good notion, Harper," observed Nesta, with some eagerness. "You could have it laid out this winter."
Harper suddenly looked at Collingwood.
"Going to stop in Barford?" he asked.
"Till I settle my grandfather's affairs--yes," answered Collingwood.
"Come and see us again," said Harper. "Come for the night--we've got a jolly good billiard table."
"Do!" added Nesta heartily.
"Since you're so kind, I will, then," replied Collingwood. "But not for a few days."
He drove off--to wonder why he had visited Normandale Grange at all. For Mrs. Mallathorpe's explanation of the letter was doubtless the right one: Collingwood, little as he had seen of Antony Bartle, knew what a veritable sleuth-hound the old man was where rare books or engravings were concerned. Yet--why the sudden exclamation on finding that paper? Why the immediate writing of the letter to Mrs. Mallathorpe? Why the setting off to Eldrick & Pascoe's office as soon as the letter was written? It all looked as if the old man had found some document, the contents of which related to the Mallathorpe family, and was anxious to communicate its nature to Mrs. Mallathorpe, and to his own solicitor, as soon as possible.
"But that's probably only my fancy," he mused, as he sped back to Barford; "the real explanation is doubtless that suggested by Mrs. Mallathorpe. Something made the old man think of the collection of local books at Normandale Grange--and he immediately wrote off to ask her to see him, with the idea of persuading her to let him have them. That's all there is in it--what a suspicious sort of party I must be getting! And suspicious of whom--and of what? Anyhow, I'm glad I went out there--and I'll certainly go again."
On his way back to Barford he thought a good deal of the two young people he had just left. There was something of the irony of fate about their situation. There they were, in possession of money and luxury and youth--and already bored because they had nothing to do. He felt what closely approached a contemptuous pity for Harper--why didn't he turn to some occupation? There was their own business--why didn't he put in so many hours a day there, instead of leaving it to managers? Why didn't he interest himself in local affairs?--work at something? Already he had all the appearance of a man who is inclined to slackness--and in that case, mused Collingwood, his money would do him positive harm. But he had no thoughts of that sort about Nesta Mallathorpe: he had seen that she was of a different temperament.
"She'll not stick there--idling," he said. "She'll break out and do something or other. What did she say? 'Suffering from lack of occupation'? A bad thing to suffer from, too--glad I'm not similarly afflicted!"
There was immediate occupation for Collingwood himself when he reached the town. He had already made up his mind as to his future plans. He would sell his grandfather's business as soon as he could find a buyer--the old man had left a provision in his will, the gist of which Eldrick had already communicated to Collingwood, to the effect that his grandson could either carry on the business with the help of a competent manager until the stock was sold out, or could dispose of it as a going concern--Collingwood decided to sell it outright, and at once. But first it was necessary for him to look round the collection of valuable books and prints, and get an idea of what it was that he was about to sell. And when he had reached Barford again, and had lunched at his hotel, he went to Quagg Alley, and shut himself in the shop, and made a careful inspection of the treasures which old Bartle had raked up from many quarters.
Within ten minutes of beginning his task Collingwood knew that he had gone out to Normandale Grange about a mere nothing. Picking up the History of Barford which Jabey Naylor had spoken of, and turning over its leaves, two papers dropped out; one a half sheet of foolscap, folded; the other, a letter from some correspondent in the United States. Collingwood read the letter first--it was evidently that which Naylor had referred to as having been delivered the previous afternoon. It asked for a good, clear copy of Hopkinson's History of Barford--and then it went on, "If you should come across a copy of what is, I believe, a very rare tract or pamphlet, Customs of the Court Leet of the Manor of Barford, published, I think, about 1720, I should be glad to pay you any price you like to ask for it--in reason." So much for the letter--Collingwood turned from it to the folded paper. It was headed "List of Barford Tracts and Pamphlets in my box marked B.P. in the library at N Grange," and it was initialled at the foot J.M. Then followed the titles of some twenty-five or thirty works--amongst them was the very tract for which the American correspondent had inquired. And now Collingwood had what he believed to be a clear vision of what had puzzled him--his grandfather having just read the American buyer's request had found the list of these pamphlets inside the History of Barford, and in it the entry of the particular one he wanted, and at once he had written to Mrs. Mallathorpe in the hope of persuading her to sell what his American correspondent desired to buy. It was all quite plain--and the old man's visit to Eldrick & Pascoe's had nothing to do with the letter to Mrs. Mallathorpe. Nor had he carried the folded paper in his pocket to Eldrick's--when Jabey Naylor went out to post the letter. Antony had placed the folded paper and the American letter together in the book and left them there. Quite, quite simple!--he had had his run to Normandale Grange and back all about nothing, and for nothing--except that he had met Nesta Mallathorpe, whom he was already sufficiently interested in to desire to see again. But having arrived at an explanation of what had puzzled him and made him suspicious, he dismissed that matter from his mind and thought no more of it.
But across the street, all unknown to Collingwood, Linford Pratt was thinking a good deal. Collingwood had taken his car from a rank immediately opposite Eldrick & Pascoe's windows; Pratt, whose desk looked on to the street, had seen him drive away soon after ten o'clock and return about half-past twelve. Pratt, who knew everybody in the business centre of the town, knew the man who had driven Collingwood, and when he went out to his lunch he asked him where he had been that morning. The man, who knew no reason for secrecy, told him--and Pratt went off to eat his bread and cheese and drink his one glass of ale and to wonder why young Collingwood had been to Normandale Grange. He became slightly anxious and uneasy. He knew that Collingwood must have made some slight examination of old Bartle's papers. Was it--could it be possible that the old man, before going to Eldrick's, had left some memorandum of his discovery in his desk--or in a diary? He had said that he had not shown the will, nor mentioned the will, to a soul--but he might;--old men were so fussy about things--he might have set down in his diary that he had found it on such a day, and under such-and-such circumstances.
However, there was one person who could definitely inform him of the reason of Collingwood's visit to Normandale Grange--Mrs. Mallathorpe. He would see her at once, and learn if he had any grounds for fear. And so it came about that at nine o'clock that evening, Mrs. Mallathorpe, for the second time that day, found herself asked to see a limb of the law.