Chapter IX. Until Next Spring
 

Within a week of his sudden death in Eldrick's private office, old Antony Bartle was safely laid in the tomb under the yew-tree of which Mrs. Clough had spoken with such appreciation, and his grandson had entered into virtual possession of all that he had left. Collingwood found little difficulty in settling his grandfather's affairs. Everything had been left to him: he was sole executor as well as sole residuary legatee. He found his various tasks made uncommonly easy. Another bookseller in the town hurried to buy the entire stock and business, goodwill, book debts, everything--Collingwood was free of all responsibility of the shop in Quagg Alley within a few days of the old man's funeral. And when he had made a handsome present to the housekeeper, a suitable one to the shop-boy, and paid his grandfather's last debts, he was free to depart--a richer man by some five-and-twenty thousand pounds than when he hurried down to Barford in response to Eldrick's telegram.

He sat in Eldrick's office one afternoon, winding up his affairs with him. There were certain things that Eldrick & Pascoe would have to do; as for himself it was necessary for him to get back to London.

"There's something I want to propose to you," said Eldrick, when they had finished the immediate business. "You're going to practise, of course?"

"Of course!" replied Collingwood, with a laugh. "If I get the chance!"

"You'll get the chance," said Eldrick. "What were you going in for?"

"Commercial law--company law--as a special thing," answered Collingwood.

"Why?"

"I'll tell you what it is," continued Eldrick eagerly. "There's a career for you if you'll take my advice. Leave London--come down here and take chambers in the town, and go the North-Eastern Circuit. I'll promise you--for our firm alone--plenty of work. You'll get more--there's lots of work waiting here for a good, smart young barrister. Ah!--you smile, but I know what I'm talking about. You don't know Barford men. They believe in the old adage that one should look at home before going abroad. They're terribly litigious, too, and if you were here, on the spot, they'd give you work. What do you say, Collingwood?"

"That sounds very tempting. But I was thinking of sticking to London."

"Not one hundredth part of the chance in London that there is here!" affirmed Eldrick "We badly want two or three barristers in this place. A man who's really well up in commercial and company law would soon have his hands full. There's work, I tell you. Take my advice, and come!"

"I couldn't come--in any case--for a few months," said Collingwood, musingly. "Of course, if you really think there's an opening----"

"I know there is!" asserted Eldrick. "I'll guarantee you lots of work--our work. I'm sick of fetching men down all the way from town, or getting them from Leeds. Come!--and you'll see."

"I might come in a few months' time, and try things for a year or two," replied Collingwood. "But I'm off to India, you know, next week, and I shall be away until the end of spring--four months or so."

"To India!" exclaimed Eldrick. "What are you going to do there?"

"Sir John Standridge," said Collingwood, mentioning a famous legal luminary of the day, "is going out to Hyderabad to take certain evidence, and hold a sort of inquiry, in a big case, and I'm going with him as his secretary and assistant--I was in his chambers for two years, you know. We leave next week, and we shall not be back until the end of April."

"Lucky man!" remarked the solicitor. "Well, when you return, don't forget what I've said. Come back!--you'll not regret it. Come and settle down. Bye-the-bye, you're not engaged, are you?"

"Engaged?" said Collingwood. "To what--to whom--what do you mean?"

"Engaged to be married," answered Eldrick coolly. "You're not? Good! If you want a wife, there's Miss Mallathorpe. Nice, clever girl, my boy--and no end of what Barford folk call brass. The very woman for you."

"Do you Barford people ever think of anything else but what you call brass?" asked Collingwood, laughing.

"Sometimes," replied Eldrick. "But it's generally of something that nothing but brass can bring or produce. After all, a rich wife isn't a despicable thing, nowadays. You've seen this young lady?"

"I've been there once," asserted Collingwood.

"Go again--before you leave," counselled Eldrick. "You're just the right man. Listen to the counsels of the wise! And while you're in India, think well over my other advice. I tell you there's a career for you, here in the North, that you'd never get in town."

Collingwood left him and went out--to find a motorcar and drive off to Normandale Grange, not because Eldrick had advised him to go, but because of his promise to Harper and Nesta Mallathorpe. And once more he found Nesta alone, and though he had no spice of vanity in his composition it seemed to him that she was glad when he walked into the room in which they had first met.

"My mother is out--gone to town--to the mill," she said. "And Harper is knocking around the park with a gun--killing rabbits--and time. He'll be in presently to tea--and he'll be delighted to see you. Are you going to stay in Barford much longer?"

"I'm going up to town this evening--seven o'clock train," answered Collingwood, watching her keenly. "All my business is finished now--for the present."

"But--you'll be coming back?" she asked.

"Perhaps," he said. "I may come back--after a while."

"When you do come back," she went on, a little hurriedly, "will you come and see us again? I--it's difficult to explain--but I do wish Harper knew more men--the right sort of men. Do you understand?"

"You mean--he needs more company?"

"More company of the right kind. He doesn't know many nice men. And he has so little to occupy him. He's no head for business--my mother attends to all that--and he doesn't care much about sport--and when he goes into Barford he only hangs about the club, and, I'm afraid, at two or three of the hotels there, and--it's not good for him."

"Can't you get him interested in anything?" suggested Collingwood. "Is there nothing that he cares about?"

"He never did care about anything," replied Nesta with a sigh. "He's apathetic! He just moves along. Sometimes I think he was born half asleep, and he's never been really awakened. Pity, isn't it?"

"Considering everything--a great pity," agreed Collingwood. "But--he's provided for."

Nesta gave him a swift glance.

"It might have been a good deal better for him if he hadn't been provided for!" she said. "He'd have just had to do something, then. But--if you come back, you'll come here sometimes?"

"Of course!" answered Collingwood. "And if I come back, it will probably be to stop here. Mr. Eldrick says there's a lot of work going begging in Barford--for a smart young barrister well up in commercial law. Perhaps I may try to come up to his standard--I'm certainly young, but I don't know whether I'm smart."

"Better come and try," she said, smiling. "Don't forget that I've seen you look the part, anyway--your wig and gown suited you very well."

"Theatrical properties," he replied, laughing. "The wig was too small, and the gown too long. Well--we'll see. But in the meantime, I'm going away for four months--to India,"

"To India--four months!" she exclaimed. "That sounds nice."

"Legal business," said Collingwood. "I shall be back about the end of April--and then I shall probably come down here again, and seriously consider Eldrick's suggestion. I'm very much inclined to take it."

"Then--you'd leave London?" she asked.

"I've little to leave there," replied Collingwood. "My father and mother are dead, and I've no brothers, no sisters--no very near relations. Sounds lonely, doesn't it?"

"One can feel lonely when one has relations," said Nesta.

"Are you saying that from--experience?" he asked.

"I often wish I had more to do," she answered frankly. "What's the use of denying it? I've next to nothing to do, here. I liked my work at the hospital--I was busy all day. Here----"

"If I were you," interrupted Collingwood, "I'd set to work nursing in another fashion. Look after your brother! Get him going at something--even if it's playing golf. Play with him! It would do him--and you--all the good in the world if you got thoroughly infatuated with even a game. Don't you see?"

"You mean--anything is better than nothing," she replied. "All right--I'll try that, anyway. For--I'm anxious about Harper. All this money!--and no occupation!"

Collingwood, who was sitting near the windows, looked out across the park and into the valley beyond.

"I should have thought that a man who had come into an estate like this would have found plenty of occupation," he remarked. "What is there, beside the house and this park?"

Nesta, who had busied herself with some fancy-work since Collingwood's entrance, laid it down and came to the windows. She pointed to certain roofs and gables in the valley.

"There's the whole village of Normandale," she said. "A busy place, no doubt, but it's all Harper's--he's lord of the manor, He's patron of the living, too. It's all his--farms, cottages, everything. And the woods, and the park, and this house, and a stretch of the moors, as well. Of course, he ought to find a lot to do--but he doesn't. Perhaps because my mother does everything. She really is a business woman."

Collingwood looked out over the area which Nesta had indicated. Harper Mallathorpe, he calculated, must be possessed of some three or four thousand acres.

"A fine property!" he said. "He's a very fortunate fellow!"

Just then this very fortunate fellow came in. His face, dull enough as he entered, lighted up at sight of a visitor, and fell again when Collingwood explained that his visit was a mere flying one, and that he was returning to London that night. Collingwood led him on to the project which he had mentioned at his previous visit--the making of golf links in the park, and pointed out, as a devotee of the sport, what a fine course could be made. Before he left he had succeeded in arousing like interest in Harper--he promised to go into the matter, and to employ a man whom Collingwood recommended as an expert in laying out golf courses.

"You'll have got your greens in something like order by this time next year, if you start operations soon," said Collingwood. "And then, if I settle down at Barford, I'll come out now and then, if you'll let me."

"Let you!" exclaimed Harper. "By Jove!--we're only too glad to have anybody out here--aren't we, Nesta?"

"We shall always be glad to see Mr. Collingwood," said Nesta.

Collingwood went away with that last intimation warm in his memory. He had an idea that the girl meant what she said--and for a moment he was sorry that he was going to India. He might have settled down at Barford there and then, and--but at that he laughed at himself.

"A young woman with several thousands a year of her own!" he said. "Of course, she'll marry some big pot in the county. They feel a little lonely, those two, just now, because everything's new to them, and they're new to their changed circumstances. But when I get back--ah!--I guess they'll have got plenty of people around them."

And he determined, being a young man of sense, not to think any more--for already he had thought a good deal of Nesta Mallathorpe, until he returned from his Indian travels. Let him attend to his business, and leave possibilities until they came nearer.

"All the same." he mused, as he drew near the town again, "I'm pretty sure I shall come back here next spring--I feel like it."

He called in at Eldrick's office on his way to the hotel, to take some documents which had been preparing for him. It was then late in the afternoon, and no one but Pratt was there--Pratt, indeed, had been waiting until Collingwood called.

"Going back to town, Mr. Collingwood?" asked Pratt as he handed over a big envelope. "When shall we have the pleasure of seeing you again, sir?"

Something in the clerk's tone made Collingwood think--he could not tell why--that Pratt was fishing for information. And--also for reasons which he could not explain--Collingwood had taken a curious dislike to Pratt, and was not inclined to give him any confidence.

"I don't know," he answered, a little icily. "I am leaving for India next week."

He bade the clerk a formal farewell and went off, and Pratt locked the office door and slowly followed him downstairs.

"To India!" he said to himself, watching the young barrister's retreating figure. "To India, eh? For a time--or for--what?"

Anyway, that was good news, Pratt had seen in Collingwood a possible rival.