Chapter VII. The Supreme Inducement
 

Pratt was in Eldrick & Pascoe's office soon after half-past eight next morning, and for nearly forty minutes he had the place entirely to himself. But it took only a few of those minutes for him to do what he had carefully planned before he went to bed the previous night. Shutting himself into Eldrick's private room, and making sure that he was alone that time, he immediately opened the drawer in the senior partner's desk, wherein Eldrick, culpably enough, as Parrawhite had sneeringly remarked, was accustomed to put loose money. Eldrick was strangely careless in that way: he would throw money into that drawer in presence of his clerks--notes, gold, silver. If it happened to occur to him, he would take the money out at the end of the afternoon and hand it to Pratt to lock up in the safe; but as often as not, it did not occur. Pratt had more than once ventured on a hint which was almost a remonstrance, and Eldrick had paid no attention to him. He was a careless, easy-going man in many respects, Eldrick, and liked to do things in his own way. And after all, as Pratt had decided, when he found that his hints were not listened to, it was Eldrick's own affair if he liked to leave the money lying about.

There was money lying about in that drawer when Pratt drew it open; it was never locked, day or night, or, if it was, the key was left in it. As soon as he opened it, he saw gold--two or three sovereigns--and silver--a little pile of it. And, under a letter weight, four banknotes of ten pounds each. But this was precisely what Pratt had expected to see; he himself had handed banknotes, gold, and silver to Eldrick the previous evening, just after receiving them from a client who had called to pay his bill. And he had seen Eldrick place them in the drawer, as usual, and soon afterwards Eldrick had walked out, saying he was going to the club, and he had never returned.

What Pratt now did was done as the result of careful thought and deliberation. There was a cheque-book lying on top of some papers in the drawer; he took it up and tore three cheques out of it. Then he picked up the bank-notes, tore them and the abstracted blank cheques into pieces, and dropped the pieces in the fire recently lighted by the caretaker. He watched these fragments burn, and then he put the gold and silver in his hip-pocket, where he already carried a good deal of his own, and walked out.

Nine o'clock brought the office-boy; a quarter-past nine brought the clerks; at ten o'clock Eldrick walked in. According to custom, Pratt went into Eldrick's room with the letters, and went through them with him. One of them contained a legal document over which the solicitor frowned a little.

"Ask Parrawhite's opinion about that," he said presently, indicating a marked paragraph.

"Parrawhite has not come in this morning, sir," observed Pratt, gathering up letters and papers. "I'll draw his attention to it when he arrives."

He went into the outer office, only to be summoned back to Eldrick a few minutes later. The senior partner was standing by his desk, looking a little concerned, and, thought Pratt, decidedly uncomfortable. He motioned the clerk to close the door.

"Has Parrawhite come?" he asked.

"No," replied Pratt, "Not yet, Mr. Eldrick."

"Is--is he usually late?" inquired Eldrick.

"Usually quite punctual--half-past nine," said Pratt.

Eldrick glanced at his watch; then at his clerk.

"Didn't you give me some cash last night?" he asked.

"Forty-three pounds nine," answered Pratt. "Thompson's bill of costs--he paid it yesterday afternoon."

Eldrick looked more uncomfortable than ever.

"Well--the fact is," he said, "I--I meant to hand it to you to put in the safe, Pratt, but I didn't come back from the club. And--it's gone!"

Pratt simulated concern--but not astonishment. And Eldrick pulled open the drawer, and waved a hand over it.

"I put it down there," he said. "Very careless of me, no doubt--but nothing of this sort has ever happened before, and--however, there's the unpleasant fact, Pratt. The money's gone!"

Pratt, who had hastily turned over the papers and other contents of the drawer, shook his head and used his privilege as an old and confidential servant. "I've always said, sir, that it was a great mistake to leave loose money lying about," he remarked mournfully. "If there'd only been a practice of letting me lock anything of that sort up in the safe every night--and this chequebook, too, sir--then----"

"I know--I know!" said Eldrick. "Very reprehensible on my part--I'm afraid I am careless--no doubt of it. But----"

He in his turn was interrupted by Pratt, who was turning over the cheque-book.

"Some cheque forms have been taken out of this," he said. "Three! at the end. Look there, sir!"

Eldrick uttered an exclamation of intense annoyance and disgust. He looked at the despoiled cheque-book, and flung it into the drawer.

"Pratt!" he said, turning half appealingly, half confidentially to the clerk. "Don't say a word of this--above all, don't mention it to Mr. Pascoe. It's my fault and I must make the forty-three pounds good. Pratt, I'm afraid this is Parrawhite's work. I--well, I may as well tell you--he'd been in trouble before he came here. I gave him another chance--I'd known him, years ago. I thought he 'd go straight. But--I fear he's been tempted. He may have seen me leave money about. Was he in here last night?"

Pratt pointed to a document which lay on Eldrick's desk.

"He came in here to leave that for your perusal," he answered. "He was in here--alone--a minute or two before he left."

All these lies came readily and naturally--and Eldrick swallowed each. He shook his head.

"My fault--all my fault!" he said. "Look here--keep it quiet. But--do you know where Parrawhite has lived--lodged?"

"No!" replied Pratt. "Some of the others may, though!"

"Try to find out--quickly," continued Eldrick; "Then, make some excuse to go out--take papers somewhere, or something--and find if he's left his lodgings! I--I don't want to set the police on him. He was a decent fellow, once. See what you can make out, Pratt| In strict secrecy, you know---I do not want this to go further."

Pratt could have danced for joy when he presently went out into the town. There would be no hue-and-cry after Parrawhite--none! Eldrick would accept the fact that Parrawhite had robbed him and flown--and Parrawhite would never be heard of--never mentioned again. It was the height of good luck for him. Already he had got rid of any small scraps of regret or remorse about the killing of his fellow-clerk. Why should he be sorry? The scoundrel had tried to murder him, thinking no doubt that he had the will on him. And he had not meant to kill him--what he had done, he had done in self-defence. No--everything was working most admirably--Parrawhite's previous bad record, Eldrick's carelessness and his desire to shut things up: it was all good. From that day forward, Parrawhite would be as if he had never been. Pratt was not even afraid of the body being discovered--though he believed that it would remain where it was for ever--for the probability was that the authorities would fill up that pit with earth and stones. But if it was brought to light? Why, the explanation was simple.

Parrawhite, having robbed his employer, had been robbed himself, possibly by men with whom he had been drinking, and had been murdered in the bargain. No suspicion could attach to him, Pratt--he had nothing to fear--nothing!

For the form of the thing, he called at the place whereat Parrawhite had lodged--they had seen nothing of him since the previous morning. They were poor, cheap lodgings in a mean street. The woman of the house said that Parrawhite had gone out as usual the morning before, and had never been in again. In order to find out all he could, Pratt asked if he had left much behind him in the way of belongings, and--just as he had expected--he learned that Parrawhite's personal property was remarkably limited: he possessed only one suit of clothes and not over much besides, said the landlady.

"Is there aught wrong?" she asked, when Pratt had finished his questions. "Are you from where he worked?"

"That's it," answered Pratt, "And he hasn't turned up this morning, and we think he's left the town. Owe you anything, missis?"

"Nay, nothing much," she replied. "Ten shillings 'ud cover it, mister."

Pratt gave her half a sovereign. It was not out of consideration for her, nor as a concession to Parrawhite's memory: it was simply to stop her from coming down to Eldrick & Pascoe's.

"Well, I don't think you'll see him again," he remarked. "And I dare say you won't care if you don't."

He turned away then, but before he had gone far, the woman called him back.

"What am I to do with his bits of things, mister, if he doesn't come back?" she asked.

"Aught you please," answered Pratt, indifferently. "Throw 'em on the dust-heap."

As he went back to the centre of the town, he occupied himself in considering his attitude to Mrs. Mallathorpe when she called on him that evening. In spite of his own previous notion, and of his carefully-worked-out scheme about the stewardship, he had been impressed by what Parrawhite has said as to the wisdom of selling the will for cash. Pratt did not believe that there was anything in the Collingwood suggestion--no doubt whatever, he had decided, that old Bartle had meant to tell Mrs. Mallathorpe of his discovery when she called in answer to his note, but as he had died before she could call, and as he had told nobody but him, Pratt, what possible danger could there be from Collingwood? And a stewardship for life appealed to him. He knew, from observation of the world, what a fine thing it is to have a certainty.

Once he became steward and agent of the Normandale Grange estate, he would stick there, until he had saved a tidy heap of money. Then he would retire--with a pension and a handsome present--and enjoy himself. To be provided for, for life!--what more could a wise man want? And yet--there was something in what that devil Parrawhite had urged.

For there was a risk--however small--of discovery, and if discovery were made, there would be a nice penalty to pay. It might, after all, be better to sell the will outright--for as much ready money as ever he could get, and to take his gains far away, and start out on a career elsewhere. After all, there was much to be said for the old proverb. The only question was--was the bird in hand worth the two; or the money, which he believed he would net in the bush?

Pratt's doubts on this point were settled in a curious fashion. He had reached the centre of the town in his return to Eldrick's, and there, in the fashionable shopping street, he ran up against an acquaintance. He and the acquaintance stopped and chatted--about nothing. And as they lounged on the curb, a smart victoria drew up close by, and out of it, alone, stepped a girl who immediately attracted Pratt's eyes. He watched her across the pavement; he watched her into the shop. And his companion laughed.

"That's the sort!" he remarked flippantly. "If you and I had one each, old man--what?"

"Who is she?" demanded Pratt.

The acquaintance stared at him in surprise.

"What!" he exclaimed. "You don't know. That's Miss Mallathorpe."

"I didn't know," said Pratt "Fact!"

He waited until Nesta Mallathorpe came out and drove away--so that he could get another and a closer look at her. And when she was gone, he went slowly back to the office, his mind made up. Risk or no risk, he would carry out his original notion. Whatever Mrs. Mallathorpe might offer, he would stick to his idea of close and intimate connection with Normandale Grange.