Chapter XIV. The Sheet of Figures
 

At that time Stoner had been in the employment of Mallalieu and Cotherstone for some five or six years. He was then twenty-seven years of age. He was a young man of some ability--sharp, alert, quick at figures, good at correspondence, punctual, willing: he could run the business in the absence of its owners. The two partners appreciated Stoner, and they had gradually increased his salary until it reached the sum of two pounds twelve shillings and sixpence per week. In their opinion a young single man ought to have done very well on that: Mallalieu and Cotherstone had both done very well on less when they were clerks in that long vanished past of which they did not care to think. But Stoner was a young man of tastes. He liked to dress well. He liked to play cards and billiards. He liked to take a drink or two at the Highmarket taverns of an evening, and to be able to give his favourite barmaids boxes of chocolate or pairs of gloves now and then--judiciously. And he found his salary not at all too great, and he was always on the look-out for a chance of increasing it.

Stoner emerged from Mallalieu & Cotherstone's office at his usual hour of half-past five on the afternoon of the day on which the reward bills were put out. It was his practice to drop in at the Grey Mare Inn every evening on his way to his supper, there to drink a half-pint of bitter ale and hear the news of the day from various cronies who were to be met with in the bar-parlour. As he crossed the street on this errand on this particular evening, Postick, the local bill-poster, came hurrying out of the printer's shop with a bundle of handbills under his arm, and as he sped past Stoner, thrust a couple of them into the clerk's hand.

"Here y'are, Mr. Stoner!" he said without stopping. "Something for you to set your wits to work on. Five hundred reward--for a bit o' brain work!"

Stoner, who thought Postick was chaffing him, was about to throw the handbills, still damp from the press, into the gutter which he was stepping over. But in the light of an adjacent lamp he caught sight of the word Murder in big staring capitals at the top of them. Beneath it he caught further sight of familiar names--and at that he folded up the bills, went into the Grey Mare, sat down in a quiet corner, and read carefully through the announcement. It was a very simple one, and plainly worded. Five hundred pounds would be paid by Mr. Tallington, solicitor, of Highmarket, to any person or persons who would afford information which would lead to the arrest and conviction of the murderer or murderers of the deceased Kitely.

No one was in the bar-parlour of the Grey Mare when Stoner first entered it, but by the time he had re-read the handbill, two or three men of the town had come in, and he saw that each carried a copy. One of them, a small tradesman whose shop was in the centre of the Market Square, leaned against the bar and read the terms of the reward aloud.

"And whose money might that be?" he asked, half-sneeringly. "Who's throwing brass round in that free-handed fashion? I should want to know if the money's safe before I wasted my time in trying to get it."

"Money'll be all right," observed one of the speaker's companions. "There's Lawyer Tallington's name at the foot o' that bill. He wouldn't put his name to no offer o' that sort if he hadn't the brass in hand."

"Whose money is it, then?" demanded the first speaker. "It's not a Government reward. They say that Kitely had no relatives, so it can't be them. And it can't be that old housekeeper of his, because they say she's satisfied enough that Jack Harborough's the man, and they've got him. Queer do altogether, I call it!"

"It's done in Harborough's interest," said a third man. "Either that, or there's something very deep in it. Somebody's not satisfied and somebody's going to have a flutter with his brass over it." He turned and glanced at Stoner, who had come to the bar for his customary half-pint of ale. "Your folks aught to do with this?" he asked. "Kitely was Mr. Cotherstone's tenant, of course."

Stoner laughed scornfully as he picked up his tankard.

"Yes, I don't think!" he sneered. "Catch either of my governors wasting five hundred pence, or five pence, in that way! Not likely!"

"Well, there's Tallington's name to back it," said one of the men. "We all know Tallington. What he says, he does. The money'll be there--if it's earned."

Then they all looked at each other silently, surmise and speculation in the eyes of each.

"Tell you what!" suddenly observed the little tradesman, as if struck with a clever idea. "It might be young Bent! Five hundred pound is naught to him. This here young London barrister that's defending Harborough is stopping with Bent--they're old schoolmates. Happen he's persuaded Bent to do the handsome: they say that this barrister chap's right down convinced that Harborough's innocent. It must be Bent's brass!"

"What's Popsie say?" asked one of the younger members of the party, winking at the barmaid, who, having supplied her customers' needs, was leaning over a copy of the handbill which somebody had laid on the bar. "Whose brass can it be, Popsie?"

The barmaid stood up, seized a glass and a cloth, and began to polish the glass with vigor.

"What's Popsie say?" she repeated. "Why, what she says is that you're a lot of donkeys for wasting your time in wondering whose brass it is. What does it matter whose brass it is, so long as it's safe? What you want to do is to try and earn it. You don't pick up five hundred pounds every day!"

"She's right!" said some man of the group. "But--how does anybody start on to them games?"

"There'll be plenty o' starters, for all that, my lads!" observed the little tradesman. "Never you fear! There'll be candidates."

Stoner drank off his ale and went away. Usually, being given to gossip, he stopped chatting with anybody he chanced to meet until it was close upon his supper-time. But the last remark sent him off. For Stoner meant to be a starter, and he had no desire that anybody should get away in front of him.

The lodging in which Stoner kept his bachelor state was a quiet and eminently respectable one. He had two small rooms, a parlour and a bedchamber, in the house of a widow with whom he had lodged ever since his first coming to Highmarket, nearly six years before. In the tiny parlour he kept a few books and a writing-desk, and on those evenings which he did not spend in playing cards or billiards, he did a little intellectual work in the way of improving his knowledge of French, commercial arithmetic, and business correspondence. And that night, his supper being eaten, and the door closed upon his landlady, he lighted his pipe, sat down to his desk, unlocked one of its drawers, and from an old file-box drew out some papers. One of these, a half-sheet of ruled foolscap, he laid in front of him, the rest he put back. And then, propping his chin on his folded hands, Stoner gave that half-sheet a long, speculative inspection.

If anybody had looked over Stoner's shoulder they would have seen him gazing at a mass of figures. The half-sheet of foolscap was covered with figures: the figuring extended to the reverse side. And--what a looker-on might not have known, but what Stoner knew very well--the figures were all of Cotherstone's making--clear, plain, well-formed figures. And amongst them, and on the margins of the half-sheet, and scrawled here and there, as if purposelessly and carelessly, was one word in Cotherstone's handwriting, repeated over and over again. That word was--Wilchester.

Stoner knew how that half-sheet of foolscap had come into his possession. It was a half-sheet which he had found on Cotherstone's desk when he went into the partners' private room to tidy things up on the morning after the murder of Kitely. It lay there, carelessly tossed aside amongst other papers of clearer meaning, and Stoner, after one glance at it, had carefully folded it, placed it in his pocket, taken it home, and locked it up, to be inspected at leisure.

He had had his reasons, of course, for this abstraction of a paper which rightfully belonged to Cotherstone. Those reasons were a little difficult to explain to himself in one way; easy enough to explain, in another. As regards the difficulty, Stoner had somehow or other got a vague idea, that evening of the murder, that something was wrong with Cotherstone. He had noticed, or thought he noticed, a queer look on old Kitely's face when the ex-detective left the private room--it was a look of quiet satisfaction, or triumph, or malice; any way, said Stoner, it was something. Then there was the fact of Cotherstone's curious abstraction when he, Stoner, entered and found his employer sitting in the darkness, long after Kitely had gone--Cotherstone had said he was asleep, but Stoner knew that to be a fib. Altogether, Stoner had gained a vague feeling, a curious intuition, that there was something queer, not unconnected with the visit of Cotherstone's new tenant, and when he heard, next morning, of what had befallen Kitely, all his suspicions were renewed.

So much for the difficult reasons which had made him appropriate the half-sheet of foolscap. But there was a reason which was not difficult. It lay in the presence of that word Wilchester. If not of the finest degree of intellect, Stoner was far from being a fool, and it had not taken him very long to explain to himself why Cotherstone had scribbled the name of that far-off south-country town all over that sheet of paper, aimlessly, apparently without reason, amidst his figurings. It was uppermost in his thoughts at the time--and as he sat there, pen in hand, he had written it down, half-unconsciously, over and over again.... There it was--Wilchester--Wilchester--Wilchester.

The reiteration had a peculiar interest for Stoner. He had never heard Cotherstone nor Mallalieu mention Wilchester at any time since his first coming into their office. The firm had no dealings with any firm at Wilchester. Stoner, who dealt with all the Mallalieu & Cotherstone correspondence, knew that during his five and a half years' clerkship, he had never addressed a single letter to any one at Wilchester, never received a single letter bearing the Wilchester post-mark. Wilchester was four hundred miles away, far off in the south; ninety-nine out of every hundred persons in Highmarket had never heard the name of Wilchester. But Stoner had--quite apart from the history books, and the geography books, and map of England. Stoner himself was a Darlington man. He had a close friend, a bosom friend, at Darlington, named Myler--David Myler. Now David Myler was a commercial traveller--a smart fellow of Stoner's age. He was in the service of a Darlington firm of agricultural implement makers, and his particular round lay in the market-towns of the south and south-west of England. He spent a considerable part of the year in those districts, and Wilchester was one of his principal headquarters: Stoner had many a dozen letters of Myler's, which Myler had written to him from Wilchester. And only a year before all this, Myler had brought home a bride in the person of a Wilchester girl, the daughter of a Wilchester tradesman.

So the name of Wilchester was familiar enough to Stoner. And now he wanted to know what--what--what made it so familiar to Cotherstone that Cotherstone absent-mindedly scribbled it all over a half-sheet of foolscap paper?

But the figures? Had they any connexion with the word? This was the question which Stoner put to himself when he sat down that night in his parlour to seriously consider if he had any chance of winning that five hundred pounds reward. He looked at the figures again--more carefully. The truth was that until that evening he had never given much attention to those figures: it was the word Wilchester that had fascinated him. But now, summoning all his by no means small arithmetical knowledge to his aid, Stoner concentrated himself on an effort to discover what those figures meant. That they were a calculation of some sort he had always known--now he wanted to know of what.

The solution of the problem came to him all of a sudden--as the solution of arithmetical problems often does come. He saw the whole thing quite plainly and wondered that he had not seen it at a first glance. The figures represented nothing whatever but three plain and common sums--in compound arithmetic. Cotherstone, for some reason of his own, had taken the sum of two thousand pounds as a foundation, and had calculated (1st) what thirty years' interest on that sum at three and a half per cent. would come to; and (2nd) what thirty years' interest at five per cent. would come to; and (3rd) what the compound interest on two thousand pounds would come to--capital and compound interest--in the same period. The last reckoning--the compound interest one--had been crossed over and out with vigorous dashes of the pen, as if the calculator had been appalled on discovering what an original sum of two thousand pounds, left at compound interest for thirty years, would be transformed into in that time.

All this was so much Greek to Stoner. But he knew there was something in it--something behind those figures. They might refer to some Corporation financial business--Cotherstone being Borough Treasurer. But--they might not. And why were they mixed up with Wilchester?

For once in a way, Stoner took no walk abroad that night. Usually, even when he stopped in of an evening, he had a brief stroll to the Grey Mare and back last thing before going to bed. But on this occasion he forgot all about the Grey Mare, and Popsie the barmaid did not come into his mind for even a second. He sat at home, his feet on the fender, his eyes fixed on the dying coals in the grate. He thought--thought so hard that he forgot that his pipe had gone out. The fire had gone out, too, when he finally rose and retired. And he went on thinking for a long time after his head had sought his pillow.

"Well, it's Saturday tomorrow, anyway!" he mused at last. "Which is lucky."

Next day--being Saturday and half-holiday--Stoner attired himself in his best garments, and, in the middle of the afternoon, took train for Darlington.