Chapter VIII. Terms
 

Mrs. Mallathorpe, left to face the situation which Pratt had revealed to her in such sudden and startling fashion, had been quick to realize its seriousness. It had not taken much to convince her that the clerk knew what he was talking about. She had no doubt whatever that he was right when he said that the production of John Mallathorpe's will would mean dispossession to her children, and through them to herself. Nor had she any doubt, either, of Pratt's intention to profit by his discovery. She saw that he was a young man of determination, not at all scrupulous, eager to seize on anything likely to turn to his own advantage. She was, in short, at his mercy. And she had no one to turn to. Her son was weak, purposeless, almost devoid of character; he cared for nothing beyond ease and comfort, and left everything to her so long as he was allowed to do what he liked. She dared not confide in him--he was not fit to be entrusted with such a secret, nor endowed with the courage to carry it boldly and unflinchingly. Nor dare she confide it to her daughter--Nesta was as strong as her brother was weak: Mrs. Mallathorpe had only told the plain truth when she said to Pratt that if her daughter knew of the will she would go straight to the two trustees. No--she would have to do everything herself. And she could do nothing save under Pratt's dictation. So long as he had that will in his possession, he could make her agree to whatever terms he liked to insist upon.

She spent a sleepless night, resolving all sorts of plans; she resolved more plans and schemes during the day which followed. But they all ended at the same point--Pratt. All the future depended upon--Pratt. And by the end of the day it had come to this--she must make a determined effort to buy Pratt clean out, so that she could get the will into her own possession and destroy it. She knew that she could easily find the necessary money--Harper Mallathorpe had such a natural dislike of all business matters and was so little fitted to attend to them that he was only too well content to leave everything relating to the estate and the mill at Barford to his mother. Up to that time Mrs. Mallathorpe had managed the affairs of both, and she had large sums at her disposal, out of which she could pay Pratt without even Harper being aware that she was paying him anything. And surely no young man in Pratt's position--a mere clerk, earning a few pounds a week--would refuse a big sum of ready money! It seemed incredible to her--and she went into Barford towards evening hoping that by the time she returned the will would have been burned to grey ashes.

Mrs. Mallathorpe used some ingenuity in making her visit to Pratt. Giving out that she was going to see a friend in Barford, of whose illness she had just heard, she drove into the town, and on arriving near the Town Hall dismissed her carriage, with orders to the coachman to put up his horses at a certain livery stable, and to meet her at the same place at a specified time. Then she went away on foot, and drew a thick veil over her face before hiring a cab in which she drove up to the outskirt on which Pratt had his lodging. She was still veiled when Pratt's landlady showed her into the clerk's sitting-room.

"Is it safe here?" she asked at once. "Is there no fear of anybody hearing what we may say?"

"None!" answered Pratt reassuringly. "I know these folks--I've lived here several years. And nobody could hear however much they put their ears to the keyhole. Good thick old walls, these, Mrs. Mallathorpe, and a solid door. We're as safe here as we were in your study last night."

Mrs. Mallathorpe sat down in the chair which Pratt politely drew near his fire. She raised her veil and looked at him, and the clerk saw at once how curious and eager she was.

"That--will!" she said, in a low voice. "Let me see it--first."

"One moment," answered Pratt. "First--you understand that I'm not going to let you handle it. I'll hold it before you, so you can read it. Second--you give me your promise--I'm trusting you--that you'll make no attempt to seize it. It's not going out of my hands."

"I'm only a woman--and you're a strong man," she retorted sullenly.

"Quite so," said Pratt. "But women have a trick of snatching at things. And--if you please--you'll do exactly what I tell you to do. Put your hands behind you! If I see you make the least movement with them--back goes the will into my pocket!"

If Pratt had looked more closely at her just then, he would have taken warning from the sudden flash of hatred and resentment which swept across Mrs. Mallathorpe's face--it would have told him that he was dealing with a dangerous woman who would use her wits to circumvent and beat him--if not now, then later. But he was moving the gas bracket over the mantelpiece, and he did not see.

"Very well--but I had no intention of touching it," said Mrs. Mallathorpe. "All I want is to see it--and read it."

She obediently followed out Pratt's instructions, and standing in front of her he produced the will, unfolded it, and held it at a convenient distance before her eyes. He watched her closely, as she read it, and he saw her grow very pale.

"Take your time--read it over two or three times," he said quietly. "Get it well into your mind, Mrs. Mallathorpe."

She nodded her head at last, and Pratt stepped back, folded up the will, and turning to a heavy box which lay open on the table, placed it within, under lock and key. And that done, he turned back and took a chair, close to his visitor.

"Safe there, Mrs. Mallathorpe," he said with a glance that was both reassuring and cunning. "But only for the night. I keep a few securities of my own at one of the banks in the town--never mind which--and that will shall be deposited with them tomorrow morning."

Mrs. Mallathorpe shook her head.

"No!" she said. "Because--you'll come to terms with me."

Pratt shook his head, too, and he laughed.

"Of course I shall come to terms with you," he answered. "But they'll be my terms--and they don't include any giving up of that document. That's flat, Mrs. Mallathorpe!"

"Not if I make it worth your while?" she asked. "Listen!--you don't know what ready money I can command. Ready money, I tell you--cash down, on the spot!"

"I've a pretty good notion," responded Pratt. "It's generally understood in the town that your son's a mere figure-head, and that you're the real boss of the whole show. I know that you're at the mill four times a week, and that the managers are under your thumb. I know that you manage everything connected with the estate. So, of course, I know you've lots of ready money at your disposal."

"And I know that you don't earn more than four or five pounds a week, at the outside," said Mrs. Mallathorpe quietly. "Come, now--just think what a nice, convenient thing it would be to a young man of your age to have--a capital. Capital! It would be the making of you. You could go right away--to London, say, and start out on whatever you liked. Be sensible--sell me that paper--and be done with the whole thing."

"No!" replied Pratt.

Mrs. Mallathorpe looked at him for a full moment. She was a shrewd judge of character, and she felt that Pratt was one of those men who are hard to stir from a position once adopted. But she had to make her effort--and she made it in what she thought the most effective way.

"I'll give you five thousand pounds--cash--for it," she said. "Meet me with it tomorrow--anywhere you like in the town--any time you like--and I'll hand you the money--in notes."

"No!" said Pratt. "No!"

Once more she looked at him. And Pratt looked back--and smiled.

"When I say no, I mean no," he went on. "And I never meant 'No' more firmly than I do now."

"I don't believe you," she answered, affecting a doubt which she certainly did not feel. "You're only holding out for more money."

"If I were holding out for more money, Mrs. Mallathorpe," replied Pratt, "if I meant to sell you that will for cash payment, I should have stated my terms to you last night. I should have said precisely how much I wanted--and I shouldn't have budged from the amount. Mrs. Mallathorpe!--it's no good. I've got my own schemes, and my own ideas--and I'm going to carry 'em out. I want you to appoint me steward to your property, your affairs, for life."

"Life!" she exclaimed. "Life!"

"My life," answered Pratt. "And let me tell you--you'll find me a first-class man--a good, faithful, honest servant. I'll do well by you and yours. You'll never regret it as long as you live. It'll be the best day's work you've ever done. I'll look after your son's interests--everybody's interests--as if they were my own. As indeed," he added, with a sly glance, "they will be."

Mrs. Mallathorpe realized the finality, the resolve, in all this--but she made one more attempt.

"Ten thousand!" she said. "Come, now!--think what ten thousand pounds in cash would mean to you!"

"No--nor twenty thousand," replied Pratt. "I've made up my mind. I'll have my own terms. It's no use--not one bit of use--haggling or discussing matters further. I'm in possession of the will--and therefore of the situation, Mrs. Mallathorpe, you've just got to do what I tell you!"

He got up from his chair, and going over to a side-table took from it a blotting-pad, some writing paper and a pencil. For the moment his back was turned--and again he did not see the look of almost murderous hatred which came into his visitor's eyes; had he seen and understood it, he might even then have reconsidered matters and taken Mrs, Mallathorpe's last offer. But the look had gone when he turned again, and he noticed nothing as he handed over the writing materials.

"What are these for?" she asked.

"You'll see in a moment," replied Pratt, reseating himself, and drawing his chair a little nearer her own. "Now listen--because it's no good arguing any more. You're going to give me that stewardship and agency. You'll simply tell your son that it's absolutely necessary to have a steward. He'll agree. If he doesn't, no matter--you'll convince him. Now, then, we must do it in a fashion that won't excite any suspicion. Thus--in a few days--say next week--you'll insert in the Barford papers--all three of them--the advertisement I'm going to dictate to you. We'll put it in the usual, formal phraseology. Write this down, if you please, Mrs. Mallathorpe."

He dictated an advertisement, setting forth the requirements of which he had spoken, and Mrs. Mallathorpe obeyed him and wrote. She hated Pratt more than ever at that moment--there was a quiet, steadfast implacability about him that made her feel helpless. But she restrained all sign of it, and when she had done his bidding she looked at him as calmly as he looked at her.

"I am to insert this in the Barford papers next week," she said. "And--what then?"

"Then you'll get a lot of applications for the job," chuckled Pratt. "There'll be mine amongst them. You can throw most of 'em in the fire. Keep a few for form's sake. Profess to discuss them with Mr. Harper--but let the discussion be all on your side. I'll send two or three good testimonials--you'll incline to me from the first. You'll send for me. Your interview with me will be highly satisfactory. And you'll give me the appointment."

"And--your terms?" asked Mrs. Mallathorpe. Now that her own scheme had failed, she seemed quite placable to all Pratt's proposals--a sure sign of danger to him if he had only known it. "Better let me know them now--and have done with it."

"Quite so," agreed Pratt. "But first of all--can you keep this secret to yourself and me? The money part, any way?"

"I can--and shall," she answered.

"Good!" said Pratt. "Very well. I want a thousand a year. Also I want two rooms--and a business room--at the Grange. I shall not interfere with you or your family, or your domestic arrangements, but I shall expect to have all my meals served to me from your kitchen, and to have one of your servants at my disposal. I know the Grange--I've been over it more than once. There's much more room there than you can make use of. Give me the rooms I want in one of the wings. I shan't disturb any of you. You'll never see me except on business--and if you want to."

Again the calm acquiescence which would have surprised some men. Why Pratt failed to be surprised by it was because he was just then feeling exceedingly triumphant--he believed that Mrs. Mallathorpe was, metaphorically, at his feet. He had more than a little vanity in him, and it pleased him greatly, that dictating of terms: he saw himself a conqueror, with his foot on the neck of his victim.

"Is that all, then?" asked the visitor.

"All!" answered Pratt.

Mrs. Mallathorpe calmly folded up the draft advertisement and placed it in her purse. Then she rose and adjusted her veil.

"Then--there is nothing to be done until I get your answer to this--your application?" she asked. "Very well."

Pratt showed her out, and walked to the cab with her. He went back to his rooms highly satisfied--and utterly ignorant of what Mrs. Mallathorpe was thinking as she drove away.