Chapter X. The Hole in the Thatch

Bent, taking his guest home to dinner after the police-court proceedings, showed a strong and encouraging curiosity. He, in common with all the rest of the townsfolk who had contrived to squeeze into the old court-house, had been immensely interested in Brereton's examination of Miss Pett. Now he wanted to know what it meant, what it signified, what was its true relation to the case?

"You don't mean to say that you suspect that queer old atomy of a woman!" he exclaimed incredulously as they sat down to Bent's bachelor table. "And yet--you really looked as if you did--and contrived to throw something very like it into your voice, too! Man, alive!--half the Highmarket wiseacres'll be sitting down to their roast mutton at this minute in the full belief that Miss Pett strangled her master!"

"Well, and why not?" asked Brereton, coolly. "Surely, if you face facts, there's just as much reason to suspect Miss Pett as there is to suspect Harborough. They're both as innocent as you are, in all probability. Granted there's some nasty evidence against Harborough, there's also the presumption--founded on words from her own lips--that Miss Pett expects to benefit by this old man's death. She's a strong and wiry woman, and you tell me Kitely was getting somewhat enfeebled--she might have killed him, you know. Murders, my dear fellow, are committed by the most unlikely people, and for curious reasons: they have been committed by quite respectable females--like Miss Pett--for nothing but a mere whim."

"Do you really suspect her?" demanded Bent. "That's what I want to know."

"That's what I shan't tell you," replied Brereton, with a good-humoured laugh. "All I shall tell you is that I believe this murder to be either an exceedingly simple affair, or a very intricate affair. Wait a little--wait, for instance, until Mr. Christopher Pett arrives with that will. Then we shall advance a considerable stage."

"I'm sorry for Avice Harborough, anyway," remarked Bent, "and it's utterly beyond me to imagine why her father can't say where he was last night. I suppose there'd be an end of the case if he'd prove where he was, eh?"

"He'd have to account for every minute between nine and ten o'clock," answered Brereton. "It would be no good, for instance, if we proved to a jury that from say ten o'clock until five o'clock next morning, Harborough was at--shall we say your county town, Norcaster. You may say it would take Harborough an hour to get from here to Norcaster, and an hour to return, and that would account for his whereabouts between nine and ten last night, and between five and six this morning. That wouldn't do--because, according to the evidence, Kitely left his house just before nine o'clock, and he may have been killed immediately. Supposing Harborough killed him at nine o'clock precisely, Harborough would even then be able to arrive in Norcaster by ten. What we want to know, in order to fully establish Harborough's innocence is--where was he, what was he doing, from the moment he left his cottage last night until say a quarter past nine, the latest moment at which, according to what the doctor said, the murder could have been committed?"

"Off on one of his poaching expeditions, I suppose," said Bent.

"No--that's not at all likely," answered Brereton. "There's some very strange mystery about that man, and I'll have to get at the truth of it--in spite of his determined reticence! Bent!--I'm going to see this thing right through! The Norcaster Assizes will be on next month, and of course Harborough will be brought up then. I shall stop in this neighbourhood and work out the case--it'll do me a lot of good in all sorts of ways--experience--work--the interest in it--and the kudos I shall win if I get my man off--as I will! So I shall unashamedly ask you to give me house-room for that time."

"Of course," replied Bent. "The house is yours--only too glad, old chap. But what a queer case it is! I'd give something, you know, to know what you really think about it."

"I've not yet settled in my own mind what I do think about it," said Brereton. "But I'll suggest a few things to you which you can think over at your leisure. What motive could Harborough have had for killing Kitely? There's abundant testimony in the town--from his daughter, from neighbours, from tradesmen--that Harborough was never short of money--he's always had more money than most men in his position are supposed to have. Do you think it likely that he'd have killed Kitely for thirty pounds? Again--does anybody of sense believe that a man of Harborough's evident ability would have murdered his victim so clumsily as to leave a direct clue behind him? Now turn to another side. Is it not evident that if Miss Pett wanted to murder Kitely she'd excellent chances of not only doing so, but of directing suspicion to another person? She knew her master's habits--she knew the surroundings--she knew where Harborough kept that cord--she is the sort of person who could steal about as quietly as a cat. If--as may be established by the will which her nephew has, and of which, in spite of all she affirmed, or, rather, swore, she may have accurate knowledge--she benefits by Kitely's death, is there not motive there? Clearly, Miss Pett is to be suspected!"

"Do you mean to tell me that she'd kill old Kitely just to get possession of the bit he had to leave?" asked Bent incredulously. "Come, now,--that's a stiff proposition."

"Not to me," replied Brereton. "I've known of a case in which a young wife carefully murdered an old husband because she was so eager to get out of the dull life she led with him that she couldn't wait a year or two for his natural decease; I've heard of a case in which an elderly woman poisoned her twin-sister, so that she could inherit her share of an estate and go to live in style at Brighton. I don't want to do Miss Pett any injustice, but I say that there are grounds for suspecting her--and they may be widened."

"Then it comes to this," said Bent. "There are two people under suspicion: Harborough's suspected by the police--Miss Pett's suspected by you. And it may be, and probably is, the truth that both are entirely innocent. In that case, who's the guilty person?"

"Ah, who indeed?" assented Brereton, half carelessly. "That is a question. But my duty is to prove that my client is not guilty. And as you're going to attend to your business this afternoon, I'll do a little attending to mine by thinking things over."

When Bent had gone away to the town, Brereton lighted a cigar, stretched himself in an easy chair in front of a warm fire in his host's smoking-room, and tried to think clearly. He had said to Bent all that was in his mind about Harborough and about Miss Pett--but he had said nothing, had been determined to say nothing, about a curious thought, an unformed, vague suspicion which was there. It was that as yet formless suspicion which occupied all his mental powers now--he put Harborough and Miss Pett clean away from him.

And as he sat there, he asked himself first of all--why had this curious doubt about two apparently highly-respectable men of this little, out-of-the-world town come into his mind? He traced it back to its first source--Cotherstone. Brereton was a close observer of men; it was his natural instinct to observe, and he was always giving it a further training and development. He had felt certain as he sat at supper with him, the night before, that Cotherstone had something in his thoughts which was not of his guests, his daughter, or himself. His whole behaviour suggested pre-occupation, occasional absent-mindedness: once or twice he obviously did not hear the remarks which were addressed to him. He had certainly betrayed some curious sort of confusion when Kitely's name was mentioned. And he had manifested great astonishment, been much upset, when Garthwaite came in with the news of Kitely's death.

Now here came in what Brereton felt to be the all-important, the critical point of this, his first attempt to think things out. He was not at all sure that Cotherstone's astonishment on hearing Garthwaite's announcement was not feigned, was not a piece of pure acting. Why? He smiled cynically as he answered his own question. The answer was--Because when Cotherstone, Garthwaite, Bent, and Brereton set out from Cotherstone's house to look at the dead man's body, Cotherstone led the way straight to it.

How did Cotherstone know exactly where, in that half-mile of wooded hill-side, the murder had been committed of which he had only heard five minutes before? Yet, he led them all to within a few yards of the dead man, until he suddenly checked himself, thrust the lantern into Garthwaite's hands and said that of course he didn't know where the body was! Now might not that really mean, when fully analyzed, that even if Cotherstone did not kill Kitely himself during the full hour in which he was absent from his house he knew that Kitely had been killed, and where--and possibly by whom?

Anyway, here were certain facts--and they had to be reckoned with. Kitely was murdered about a quarter-past nine o'clock. Cotherstone was out of his house from ten minutes to nine o'clock until five minutes to ten. He was clearly excited when he returned: he was more excited when he went with the rest of them up the wood. Was it not probable that under the stress of that excitement he forgot his presence of mind, and mechanically went straight to the all-important spot?

So much for that. But there was something more. Mallalieu was Cotherstone's partner. Mallalieu went to Northrop's house to play cards at ten o'clock. It might be well to find out, quietly, what Mallalieu was doing with himself up to ten o'clock. But the main thing was--what was Cotherstone doing during that hour of absence? And--had Cotherstone any reason--of his own, or shared with his partner--for wishing to get rid of Kitely?

Brereton sat thinking all these things over until he had finished his cigar; he then left Bent's house and strolled up into the woods of the Shawl. He wanted to have a quiet look round the scene of the murder. He had not been up there since the previous evening; it now occurred to him that it would be well to see how the place looked by daylight. There was no difficulty about finding the exact spot, even in those close coverts of fir and pine; a thin line of inquisitive sightseers was threading its way up the Shawl in front of him, each of its units agog to see the place where a fellow-being had been done to death.

But no one could get at the precise scene of the murder. The police had roped a portion of the coppice off from the rest, and two or three constables in uniform were acting as guards over this enclosed space, while a couple of men in plain clothes, whom Brereton by that time knew to be detectives from Norcaster, were inside it, evidently searching the ground with great care. Round and about the fenced-in portion stood townsfolk, young and old, talking, speculating, keenly alive to the goings-on, hoping that the searchers would find something just then, so that they themselves could carry some sensational news back to the town and their own comfortable tea-tables. Most of them had been in or outside the Court House that morning and recognized Brereton and made way for him as he advanced to the ropes. One of the detectives recognized him, too, and invited him to step inside.

"Found anything?" asked Brereton, who was secretly wondering why the police should be so foolish as to waste time in a search which was almost certain to be non-productive.

"No, sir--we've been chiefly making out for certain where the actual murder took place before the dead man was dragged behind that rock," answered the detective. "As far as we can reckon from the disturbance of these pine needles, the murderer must have sprung on Kitely from behind that clump of gorse--there where it's grown to such a height--and then dragged him here, away from that bit of a path. No--we've found nothing. But I suppose you've heard of the find at Harborough's cottage?"

"No!" exclaimed Brereton, startled out of his habitual composure. "What find?"

"Some of our people made a search there as soon as the police-court proceedings were over," replied the detective. "It was the first chance they'd had of doing anything systematically. They found the bank-notes which Kitely got at the Bank yesterday evening, and a quantity of letters and papers that we presume had been in that empty pocket-book. They were all hidden in a hole in the thatch of Harborough's shed."

"Where are they?" asked Brereton.

"Down at the police-station--the superintendent has them," answered the detective. "He'd show you them, sir, if you care to go down."

Brereton went off to the police-station at once and was shown into the superintendent's office without delay. That official immediately drew open a drawer of his desk and produced a packet folded in brown paper.

"I suppose this is what you want to see, Mr. Brereton," he said. "I guess you've heard about the discovery? Shoved away in a rat-hole in the thatch of Harborough's shed these were, sir--upon my honour, I don't know what to make of it! You'd have thought that a man of Harborough's sense and cleverness would never have put these things there, where they were certain to be found."

"I don't believe Harborough did put them there," said Brereton. "But what are they?"

The superintendent motioned his visitor to sit by him and then opened the papers out on his desk.

"Not so much," he answered. "Three five-pound notes--I've proved that they're those which poor Kitely got at the bank yesterday. A number of letters--chiefly about old books, antiquarian matters, and so forth--some scraps of newspaper cuttings, of the same nature. And this bit of a memorandum book, that fits that empty pocket-book we found, with pencil entries in it--naught of any importance. Look 'em over, if you like, Mr. Brereton. I make nothing out of 'em."

Brereton made nothing out either, at first glance. The papers were just what the superintendent described them to be, and he went rapidly through them without finding anything particularly worthy of notice. But to the little memorandum book he gave more attention, especially to the recent entries. And one of these, made within the last three months, struck him as soon as he looked at it, insignificant as it seemed to be. It was only of one line, and the one line was only of a few initials, an abbreviation or two, and a date: M. & C. v. S. B. cir. 81. And why this apparently innocent entry struck Brereton was because he was still thinking as an under-current to all this, of Mallalieu and Cotherstone--and M. and C. were certainly the initials of those not too common names.