Chapter V. Point-Blank
 

Mrs. Mallathorpe was alone when Pratt's card was taken to her. Harper and Nesta were playing billiards in a distant part of the big house. Dinner had been over for an hour; Mrs. Mallathorpe, who had known what hard work and plenty of it was, in her time, was trifling over the newspapers--rest, comfort, and luxury were by no means boring to her. She looked at the card doubtfully--Pratt had pencilled a word or two on it: "Private and important business." Then she glanced at the butler--an elderly man who had been with John Mallathorpe many years before the catastrophe occurred.

"Who is he, Dickenson?" she asked. "Do you know him?"

"Clerk at Eldrick & Pascoe's, in the town, ma'am," replied the butler. "I know the young man by sight."

"Where is he?" inquired Mrs. Mallathorpe.

"In the little morning room, at present, ma'am," said Dickenson.

"Take him into the study," commanded Mrs. Mallathorpe. "I'll come to him presently." She was utterly at a loss to understand Pratt's presence there. Eldrick & Pascoe were not her solicitors, and she had no business of a legal nature in which they could be in any way concerned. But it suddenly struck her that that was the second time she had heard Eldrick's name mentioned that day--young Mr. Collingwood had said that his grandfather's death had taken place at Eldrick & Pascoe's office. Had this clerk come to see her about that?--and if so, what had she to do with it? Before she reached the room in which Pratt was waiting for her, Mrs. Mallathorpe was filled with curiosity. But in that curiosity there was not a trace of apprehension; nothing suggested to her that her visitor had called on any matter actually relating to herself or her family.

The room into which Pratt had been taken was a small apartment opening out of the library--John Mallathorpe, when he bought Normandale Grange, had it altered and fitted to suit his own tastes, and Pratt, as soon as he entered it, saw that it was a place in which privacy and silence could be ensured. He noticed that it had double doors, and that there were heavy curtains before the window. And during the few minutes which elapsed between his entrance and Mrs. Mallathorpe's, he took the precaution to look behind those curtains, and to survey his surroundings--what he had to say was not to be overheard, if he could help it.

Mrs. Mallathorpe looked her curiosity as soon as she came in. She did not remember that she had ever seen this young man before, but she recognized at once that he was a shrewd and sharp person, and she knew from his manner that he had news of importance to give her. She quietly acknowledged Pratt's somewhat elaborate bow, and motioned him to take a chair at the side of the big desk which stood before the fireplace--she herself sat down at the desk itself, in John Mallathorpe's old elbow-chair. And Pratt thought to himself that however much young Harper John Mallathorpe might be nominal master of Normandale Grange, the real master was there, in the self-evident, quiet-looking woman who turned to him in business-like fashion.

"You want to see me?" said Mrs. Mallathorpe. "What is it?"

"Business, Mrs. Mallathorpe," replied Pratt. "As I said on my card--of a private and important sort."

"To do with me?" she asked.

"With you--and with your family," said Pratt. "And before we go any further, not a soul knows of it but--me."

Mrs. Mallathorpe took another searching look at her visitor. Pratt was leaning over the corner of the desk, towards her; already he had lowered his tones to the mysterious and confidential note.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she said. "Go on."

Pratt bent a little nearer.

"A question or two first, if you please, Mrs. Mallathorpe. And--answer them! They're for your own good. Young Mr. Collingwood called on you today."

"Well--and what of it?"

"What did he want?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe hesitated and frowned a little. And Pratt hastened to reassure her. "I'm using no idle words, Mrs. Mallathorpe, when I say it's for your own good. It is! What did he come for?"

"He came to ask what there was in a letter which his grandfather wrote to me yesterday afternoon."

"Antony Bartle had written to you, had he? And what did he say, Mrs. Mallathorpe? For that is important!"

"No more than that he wanted me to call on him today, if I happened to be in Barford."

"Nothing more?"

"Nothing more--not a word."

"Nothing as to--why he wanted to see you?"

"No! I thought that he probably wanted to see me about buying some books of the late Mr. Mallathorpe's."

"Did you tell Collingwood that?" asked Pratt, eagerly.

"Yes--of course."

"Did it satisfy him?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe frowned again.

"Why shouldn't I?" she demanded. "It was the only explanation I could possibly give him. How do I know what the old man really wanted?"

Pratt drew his chair still nearer to the desk. His voice dropped to a whisper and his eyes were full of meaning.

"I'll tell you what he wanted!" he said speaking very slowly. "It's what I've come for. Listen! Antony Bartle came to our office soon after five yesterday afternoon. I was alone--everybody else had gone. I took him into Eldrick's room. He told me that in turning over one of the books which he had bought from Mallathorpe Mill, some short time ago, he had found--what do you think?"

Mrs. Mallathorpe's cheek had flushed at the mention of the books from the Mill. Now, at Pratt's question, and under his searching eye, she turned very pale, and the clerk saw her fingers tighten on the arms of her chair.

"What?" she asked. "What?"

"John Mallathorpe's will!" he answered. "Do you understand? His--will!"

The woman glanced quickly about her--at the doors, the uncurtained window.

"Safe enough here," whispered Pratt. "I made sure of that. Don't be afraid--no one knows--but me."

But Mrs. Mallathorpe seemed to find some difficulty in speaking, and when she at last got out a word her voice sounded hoarse.

"Impossible!"

"It's a fact!" said Pratt. "Nothing was ever more a fact as you'll see. But let me finish my story. The old man told me how he'd found the will--only half an hour before--and he asked me to ring up Eldrick, so that we might all read it together. I went to the telephone--when I came back, Bartle was dead--just dead. And--I took the will out of his pocket."

Mrs. Mallathorpe made an involuntary gesture with her right hand. And Pratt smiled, craftily, and shook his head.

"Much too valuable to carry about, Mrs. Mallathorpe," he said. "I've got it--all safe--under lock and key. But as I've said--nobody knows of it but myself. Not a living soul. No one has any idea! No one can have any idea. I was a bit alarmed when I heard that young Collingwood had been to you, for I thought that the old man, though he didn't tell me of any such thing, might have dropped you a line saying what he'd found. But as he didn't--well, not one living; soul knows that the will's in existence, except me--and you!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe was regaining her self-possession. She had had a great shock, but the worst of it was over, Already she knew, from Pratt's manner, insidious and suggesting, that the will was of a nature that would dispossess her and hers of this recently acquired wealth--the clerk had made that evident by look, and tone. So--there was nothing but to face things.

"What--what does it--say?" she asked, with an effort.

Pratt unbuttoned his overcoat, plunged a hand into the inner pocket, drew out a sheet of paper, unfolded it and laid it on the desk.

"An exact copy," he said tersely. "Read it for yourself."

In spite of the determined effort which she made to be calm, Mrs. Mallathorpe's fingers still trembled as she took up the sheet on which Pratt had made a fair copy of the will. The clerk watched her narrowly as she read. He knew that presently there would be a tussle between them: he knew, too, that she was a woman who would fight hard in defence of her own interest, and for the interests of her children.

Always keeping his ears open to local gossip, especially where money was concerned, Pratt had long since heard that Mrs. Mallathorpe was a keen and sharp business woman. And now he was not surprised when, having slowly and carefully read the copy of the will from beginning to end, she laid it down, and turned to him with a business-like question.

"The effect of that?" she asked. "What would it be--curtly?"

"Precisely what it says," answered Pratt. "Couldn't be clearer!"

"We--should lose all?" she demanded, almost angrily. "All?"

"All--except what he says--there," agreed Pratt.

"And that," she went on, drumming her fingers on the paper, "that--would stand?"

"What it's a copy of would stand," said Pratt. "Oh, yes, don't you make any mistake about it, Mrs. Mallathorpe! Nothing can upset that will. It is plain as a pikestaff how it came to be made. Your late brother-in-law evidently wrote his will out--it's all in his own handwriting--and took it down to the Mill with him the very day of the chimney accident. Just as evidently he signed it in the presence of his manager, Gaukrodger, and his cashier, Marshall--they signed at the same time, as it says, there. Now I take it that very soon after that, Mr. Mallathorpe went out into his mill yard to have a look at the chimney--Gaukrodger and Marshall went with him. Before he went, he popped the will into the book, where old Bartle found it yesterday--such things are easily done. Perhaps he was reading the book--perhaps it lay handy--he slipped the will inside, anyway. And then--he was killed--and, what's more the two witnesses were killed with him. So there wasn't a man left who could tell of that will! But--there's half Barford could testify to these three signatures! Mrs. Mallathorpe, there's not a chance for you if I put that will into the hands of the two trustees!"

He leaned back in his chair after that--nodding confidently, watching keenly. And now he saw that the trembling fingers were interlacing each other, twisting the rings on each other, and that Mrs. Mallathorpe was thinking as she had most likely never thought in her life. After a moment's pause Pratt went on. "Perhaps you didn't understand," he said. "I mean, you don't know the effect. Those two trustees--Charlesworth & Wyatt--could turn you all clean out of this--tomorrow, in a way of speaking. Everything's theirs! They can demand an account of every penny that you've all had out of the estate and the business--from the time you all took hold. If anything's been saved, put aside, they can demand that. You're entitled to nothing but the three amounts of ten thousand each. Of course, thirty thousand is thirty thousand--it means, at five per cent., fifteen hundred a year--if you could get five per cent. safely. But--I should say your son and daughter are getting a few thousand a year each, aren't they, Mrs. Mallathorpe? It would be a nice come-down! Five hundred a year apiece--at the outside. A small house instead of Normandale Grange. Genteel poverty--comparatively speaking--instead of riches. That is--if I hand over the will to Charlesworth & Wyatt."

Mrs. Mallathorpe slowly turned her eyes on Pratt. And Pratt suddenly felt a little afraid--there was anger in those eyes; anger of a curious sort. It might be against fate--against circumstance: it might not--why should it?--be against him personally, but it was there, and it was malign and almost evil, and it made him uncomfortable.

"Where is the will!" she asked.

"Safe! In my keeping," answered Pratt.

She looked him all over--surmisingly.

"You'll sell it to me?" she suggested. "You'll hand it over--and let me burn it--destroy it?"

"No!" answered Pratt. "I shall not!"

He saw that his answer produced personal anger at last. Mrs. Mallathorpe gave him a look which would have warned a much less observant man than Pratt. But he gave her back a look that was just as resolute.

"I say no--and I mean no!" he continued. "I won't sell--but I'll bargain. Let's be plain with each other. You don't want that will to be handed over to the trustees named in it, Charlesworth & Wyatt?"

"Do you think I'm a fool--man!" she flashed out.

"I should be a fool myself if I did," replied Pratt calmly. "And I'm not a fool. Very well--then you'll square me. You'll buy me. Come to terms with me, and nobody shall ever know. I repeat to you what I've said before--not a soul knows now, no nor suspects! It's utterly impossible for anybody to find out. The testator's dead. The attesting witnesses are dead. The man who found this will is dead. No one but you and myself ever need know a word about all this. If--you make terms with me, Mrs. Mallathorpe."

"What do you want?" she asked sullenly. "You forget--I've nothing of my own. I didn't come into anything."

"I've a pretty good notion who's real master here--and at Mallathorpe Mill, too," retorted Pratt. "I should say you're still in full control of your children, Mrs. Mallathorpe, and that you can do pretty well what you like with them."

"With one of them perhaps," she said, still angry and sullen. "But--I tell you, for you may as well know--if my daughter knew of what you've told me, she'd go straight to these trustees and tell! That's a fact that you'd better realize. I can't control her."

"Oh!" remarked Pratt. "Um!--then we must take care that she doesn't know. But we don't intend that anybody should know but you and me, Mrs. Mallathorpe. You needn't tell a soul--not even your son. You mustn't tell! Listen, now--I've thought out a good scheme which'll profit me, and make you safe. Do you know what you want on this estate?"

She stared at him as if wondering what this question had to do with the matter which was of such infinite importance. And Pratt smiled, and hastened to enlighten her.

"You want--a steward," he said. "A steward and estate agent. John Mallathorpe managed everything for himself, but your son can't, and pardon me if I say that you can't--properly. You need a man--you need me. You can persuade your son to that effect. Give me the job of steward here. I'll suggest to you how to do it in such a fashion that it'll arouse no suspicion, and look just like an ordinary--very ordinary--business job--at a salary and on conditions to be arranged, and--you're safe! Safe, Mrs. Mallathorpe--you know what that means!"

Mrs. Mallathorpe suddenly rose from her chair.

"I know this!" she said. "I'll discuss nothing, and do nothing, till I've seen that will!"

Pratt rose, too, nodding his head as if quite satisfied. He took up the copy, tore it in two pieces, and carefully dropped them into the glowing fire.

"I shall be at my lodgings at any time after five-thirty tomorrow evening," he answered quietly. "Call there. You have the address. And you can then read the will with your own eyes. I shan't bring it here. The game's in my hands, Mrs. Mallathorpe."

Within a few minutes he was out in the park again, and making his way to the little railway station in the valley below. He felt triumphant--he knew that the woman he had just left was at his mercy and would accede to his terms. And all the way back to town, and through the town to his lodgings, he considered and perfected the scheme he was going to suggest to Mrs. Mallathorpe on the morrow.

Pratt lived in a little hamlet of old houses on the very outskirts of Barford--on the edge of a stretch of Country honeycombed by stone-quarries, some in use, some already worked out. It was a lonely neighbourhood, approached from the nearest tramway route by a narrow, high-walled lane. He was half-way along that lane when a stealthy foot stole to his side, and a hand was laid on his arm--just as stealthily came the voice of one of his fellow-clerks at Eldrick & Pascoe's.

"A moment, Pratt! I've been waiting for you. I want--a word or two--in private!"