The Talleyrand Maxim by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter VI. The Unexpected
Pratt started when he heard that voice and felt the arresting hand. He knew well enough to whom they belonged--they were those of one James Parrawhite, a little, weedy, dissolute chap who had been in Eldrick & Pascoe's employ for about a year. It had always been a mystery to him and the other clerks that Parrawhite had been there at all, and that being there he was allowed to stop. He was not a Barford man. Nobody knew anything whatever about him, though his occasional references to it seemed to indicate that he knew London pretty thoroughly. Pratt shrewdly suspected that he was a man whom Eldrick had known in other days, possibly a solicitor who had been struck off the rolls, and to whom Eldrick, for old times' sake, was disposed to extend a helping hand.
All that any of them knew was that one morning some fifteen months previously, Parrawhite, a complete stranger, had walked into the office, asked to see Eldrick, had remained closeted with him half an hour, and had been given a job at two pounds a week, there and then. That he was a clever and useful clerk no one denied, but no one liked him.
He was always borrowing half-crowns. He smelt of rum. He was altogether undesirable. It was plain to the clerks that Pascoe disliked him. But he was evidently under Eldrick's protection, and he did his work and did it well, and there was no doubt that he knew more law than either of the partners, and was better up in practice than Pratt himself. But--he was not desirable ... and Pratt never desired him less than on this occasion.
"What are you after--coming on a man like that!" growled Pratt.
"You," replied Parrawhite. "I knew you'd got to come up this lane, so I waited for you. I've something to say."
"Get it said, then!" retorted Pratt.
"Not here," answered Parrawhite. "Come down by the quarry--nobody about there."
"And suppose I don't?" asked Pratt,
"Then you'll be very sorry for yourself--tomorrow," replied Parrawhite. "That's all!"
Pratt had already realized that this fellow knew something. Parrawhite's manner was not only threatening but confident. He spoke as a man speaks who has got the whip hand. And so, still growling, and inwardly raging and anxious, he turned off with his companion into a track which lay amongst the stone quarries. It was a desolate, lonely place; no house was near; they were as much alone as if they had been in the middle of one of the great moors outside the town, the lights of which they could see in the valley below them. In the grey sky above, a waning moon gave them just sufficient light to see their immediate surroundings--a grass-covered track, no longer used, and the yawning mouths of the old quarries, no longer worked, the edges of which were thick with gorse and bramble. It was the very place for secret work, and Pratt was certain that secret work was at hand.
"Now then!" he said, when they had walked well into the wilderness. "What is it? And no nonsense!"
"You'll get no nonsense from me," sneered Parrawhite. "I'm not that sort. This is what I want to say. I was in Eldrick's office last night all the time you were there with old Bartle."
This swift answer went straight through Pratt's defences. He was prepared to hear something unpleasant and disconcerting, but not that. And he voiced the first thought that occurred to him.
"That's a lie!" he exclaimed. "There was nobody there!"
"No lie," replied Parrawhite. "I was there. I was behind the curtain of that recess--you know. And since I know what you did, I don't mind telling you--we're in the same boat, my lad!--what I was going to do. You thought I'd gone--with the others. But I hadn't. I'd merely done what I've done several times without being found out--slipped in there--to wait until you'd gone. Why? Because friend Eldrick, as you know, is culpably careless about leaving loose cash in the unlocked drawer of his desk, culpably careless, too, about never counting it. And--a stray sovereign or half-sovereign is useful to a man who only gets two quid a week. Understand?"
"So you're a thief?" said Pratt bitterly.
"I'm precisely what you are--a thief!" retorted Parrawhite. "You stole John Mallathorpe's will last night. I heard everything. I tell you!--and saw everything. I heard the whole business--what the old man said--what you, later, said to Eldrick. I saw old Bartle die--I saw you take the will from his pocket, read it, and put it in your pocket. I know all!--except the terms of the will. But--I've a pretty good idea of what those terms are. Do you know why? Because I watched you set off to Normandale by the eight-twenty train tonight!"
"Hang you for a dirty sneak!" growled Pratt.
Parrawhite laughed, and flourished a heavy stick which he carried.
"Not a bit of it!" he said, almost pleasantly. "I thought you were more of a philosopher--I fancied I'd seen gleams--mere gleams--of philosophy in you at times. Fortunes of war, my boy! Come now--you've seen enough of me to know I'm an adventurer. This is an adventure of the sort I love. Go into it heart and soul, man! Own up!--you've found out that the will leaves the property away from the present holders, and you've been to Normandale to--bargain? Come, now!"
"What then!" demanded Pratt.
"Then, of course, I come in at the bargaining," answered Parrawhite. "I'm going to have my share. That's a certainty. You'd better take my advice. Because you're absolutely in my power. I've nothing to do but to tell Eldrick tomorrow morning."
"Suppose I tell Eldrick tomorrow morning of what you've told me?" interjected Pratt.
"Eldrick will believe me before you," retorted Parrawhite, imperturbably. "I'm a much cleverer, more plausible man than you are, my friend--I've had an experience of the world which you haven't, I can easily invent a fine excuse for being in that room. For two pins I'll incriminate you! See? Be reasonable--for if it comes to a contest of brains, you haven't a rabbit's chance against a fox. Tell me all about the will--and what you've done. You've got to--for, by the Lord Harry!--I'm going to have my share. Come, now!"
Pratt stood, in a little hollow wherein they had paused, and thought, rapidly and angrily. There was no doubt about it--he was trapped. This fearful scoundrel at his side, who boasted of his cleverness, would stick to him like a leach--he would have to share. All his own smart schemes for exploiting Mrs. Mallathorpe, for ensuring himself a competence for life, were knocked on the head. There was no helping it--he would have to tell--and to share. And so, sullenly, resentfully, he told.
Parrawhite listened in silence, taking in every point. Pratt, knowing that concealment was useless, told the truth about everything, concisely, but omitting nothing.
"All right!" remarked Parrawhite at the end, "Now, then, what terms do you mean to insist on?"
"What's the good of going into that?" growled Pratt. "Now that you've stuck your foot in it, what do my terms matter?"
"Quite right," agreed Parrawhite, "They don't. What matter is--our terms. Now let me suggest--no, insist on--what they must be. Cash! Do you know why I insist on that? No? Then I'll tell you. Because this young barrister chap, Collingwood, has evidently got some suspicion of--something."
"I can't see it," said Pratt uneasily. "He was only curious to know what that letter was about."
"Never mind," continued Parrawhite. "He had some suspicion--or he wouldn't have gone out there almost as soon as he reached Barford after his grandfather's death. And even if suspicion is put to sleep for awhile, it can easily be reawakened, so--cash! We must profit at once--before any future risk arises. But--what terms were you thinking of?"
"Stewardship of this estate for life," muttered Pratt gloomily.
"With the risk of some discovery being made, some time, any time!" sneered Parrawhite. "Where are your brains, man? The old fellow, John Mallathorpe, probably made a draft or two of that will before he did his fair copy--he may have left those drafts among his papers."
"If he did, Mrs. Mallathorpe 'ud find 'em," said Pratt slowly. "I don't believe there's the slightest risk. I've figured everything out. I don't believe there's any danger from Collingwood or from anybody--it's impossible! And if we take cash now--we're selling for a penny what we ought to get pounds for."
"The present is much more important than the future, my friend," answered Parrawhite. "To me, at any rate. Now, then, this is my proposal. I'll be with you when this lady calls at your place tomorrow evening. We'll offer her the will, to do what she likes with, for ten thousand pounds. She can find that--quickly. When she pays--as she will!--we share, equally, and then--well, you can go to the devil! I shall go--somewhere else. So that's settled."
"No!" said Pratt.
Parrawhite turned sharply, and Pratt saw a sinister gleam in his eyes.
"Did you say no?" he asked.
"I said--no!" replied Pratt. "I'm not going to take five thousand pounds for a chance that's worth fifty thousand. Hang you!--if you hadn't been a black sneak-thief, as you are, I'd have had the whole thing to myself! And I don't know that I will give way to you. If it comes to it, my word's as good as yours--and I don't believe Eldrick would believe you before me. Pascoe wouldn't anyway. You've got a past!--in quod, I should think--my past's all right. I've a jolly good mind to let you do your worst--after all, I've got the will. And by george! now I come to think of it, you can do your worst! Tell what you like tomorrow morning. I shall tell 'em what you are--a scoundrel."
He turned away at that--and as he turned, Parrawhite, with a queer cry of rage that might have come from some animal which saw its prey escaping, struck out at him with the heavy stick. The blow missed Pratt's head, but it grazed the tip of his ear, and fell slantingly on his left shoulder. And then the anger that had been boiling in Pratt ever since the touch on his arm in the dark lane, burst out in activity, and he turned on his assailant, gripped him by the throat before Parrawhite could move, and after choking and shaking him until his teeth rattled and his breath came in jerking sobs, flung him violently against the masses of stone by which they had been standing.
Pratt was of considerable physical strength. He played cricket and football; he visited a gymnasium thrice a week. His hands had the grip of a blacksmith; his muscles were those of a prize-fighter. He had put more strength than he was aware of into his fierce grip on Parrawhite's throat; he had exerted far more force than he knew he was exerting, when he flung him away. He heard a queer cracking sound as the man struck something, and for the moment he took no notice of it--the pain of that glancing blow on his shoulder was growing acute, and he began to rub it with his free hand and to curse its giver.
"Get up, you fool, and I'll give you some more!" he growled. "I'll teach you to----"
He suddenly noticed the curiously still fashion in which Parrawhite was lying where he had flung him--noticed, too, as a cloud passed the moon and left it unveiled, how strangely white the man's face was. And just as suddenly Pratt forgot his own injury, and dropped on his knees beside his assailant. An instant later, and he knew that he was once more confronting death. For Parrawhite was as dead as Antony Bartle--violent contact of his head with a rock had finished what Pratt had nearly completed with that vicious grip. There was no questioning it, no denying it--Pratt was there in that lonely place, staring half consciously, half in terror, at a dead man.
He stood up at last, cursing Parrawhite with the anger of despair. He had not one scrap of pity for him. All his pity was for himself. That he should have been brought into this!--that this vile little beast, perfect scum that he was, should have led him to what might be the utter ruin of his career!--it was shameful, it was abominable, it was cruel! He felt as if he could cheerfully tear Parrawhite's dead body to pieces. But even as these thoughts came, others of a more important nature crowded on them. For--there lay a dead man, who was not to be put in one's pocket, like a will. It was necessary to hide that thing from the light--ever that light. Within a few hours, morning would break, and lonely and deserted as that place was nowadays, some one might pass that way. Out of sight with him, then!--and quickly.
Pratt was very well acquainted with the spot at which he stood. Those old quarries had a certain picturesqueness. They had become grass-grown; ivy, shrubs, trees had clustered about them--the people who lived in the few houses half a mile away, sometimes walked around them; the children made a playground of the place: Pratt himself had often gone into some quiet corner to read and smoke. And now his quick mind immediately suggested a safe hiding place for this thing that he could not carry away with him, and dare not leave to the morning sun--close by was a pit, formerly used for some quarrying purpose, which was filled, always filled, with water. It was evidently of considerable depth; the water was black in it; the mouth was partly obscured by a maze of shrub and bramble. It had been like that ever since Pratt came to lodge in that part of the district--ten or twelve years before; it would probably remain like that for many a long year to come. That bit of land was absolutely useless and therefore neglected, and as long as rain fell and water drained, that pit would always be filled to its brim.
He remembered something else: also close by where he stood--a heap of old iron things--broken and disused picks, smashed rails, fragments thrown aside when the last of the limestone had been torn out of the quarries. Once more luck was playing into his hands--those odds and ends might have been put there for the very purpose to which he now meant to turn them. And being certain that he was alone, and secure, Pratt proceeded to go about his unpleasant task skilfully and methodically. He fetched a quantity of the iron, fastened it to the dead man's clothing, drew the body, thus weighted, to the edge of the pit, and prepared to slide it into the black water. But there an idea struck him. While he made these preparations he had had hosts of ideas as to his operations next morning--this idea was supplementary to them. Quickly and methodically he removed the contents of Parrawhite's pockets to his own--everything: money, watch and chain, even a ring which the dead man had been evidently vain of. Then he let Parrawhite glide into the water--and after him he sent the heavy stick, carefully fastened to a bar of iron.
Five minutes later, the surface of the water in that pit was as calm and unruffled as ever--not a ripple showed that it had been disturbed. And Pratt made his way out of the wilderness, swearing that he would never enter it again.