The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XVI. The Lonely Moor
During the three hours which had elapsed since his departure from Darlington, Stoner had been thinking things over. He had seen his friend Myler again that morning; they had had a drink or two together at the station refreshment room before Stoner's train left, and Myler had once more urged upon Stoner to use his fortunately acquired knowledge in the proper way. No doubt, said Myler, he could get Mallalieu and Cotherstone to square him; no doubt they would cheerfully pay thousands where the reward only came to hundreds--but, when everything was considered, was it worth while? No!--a thousand times, no, said Myler. The mere fact that Stoner had found out all this was a dead sure proof that somebody else might find it out. The police had a habit, said Myler, of working like moles--underground. How did Stoner know that some of the Norcaster and London detectives weren't on the job already? They knew by that time that old Kitely was an ex-detective; they'd be sure to hark back on his past doings, in the effort to trace some connexion between one or other of them and his murder. Far away as it was, that old Wilchester affair would certainly come up again. And when it came up--ah, well, observed Myler, with force and earnestness, it would be a bad job for Stoner if it were found out that he'd accepted hush-money from his masters. In fact--Myler gave it as his decided opinion, though, as he explained, he wasn't a lawyer--he didn't know but what Stoner, in that case, would be drawn in as an accessory after the fact.
"Keep to the law, Bert, old man!" counselled Myler, as they parted. "You'll be all right then. Stick to my advice--see Tallington at once--this very afternoon!--and put in for the five hundred. You'll be safe as houses in doing that--but there'd be an awful risk about t'other, Bert. Be wise!--you'll get no better counsel."
Stoner knew that his sagacious friend was right, and he was prepared to abide by his counsel--as long as Myler was at his elbow. But when he had got away from him, his mind began to wobble. Five hundred pounds!--what was it in comparison with what he might get by a little skilful playing of his cards? He knew Mallalieu and he knew Cotherstone--knew much more about both of them than they had any idea of. He knew that they were rich men--very rich men. They had been making money for years, and of late certain highly successful and profitable contracts had increased their wealth in a surprising fashion. Everything had gone right with them--every contract they had taken up had turned out a gold mine. Five thousand pounds would be nothing to them singly--much less jointly. In Stoner's opinion, he had only to ask in order to have. He firmly believed that they would pay--pay at once, in good cash. And if they did--well, he would take good care that no evil chances came to him! If he laid hands on five thousand pounds, he would be out of Highmarket within five hours, and half-way across the Atlantic within five days. No--Dave Myler was a good sort--one of the best--but he was a bit straight-laced, and old-fashioned--especially since he had taken a wife--and after all, every man has a right to do his best for himself. And so, when Stoner came face to face with Mallalieu, on the lonely moor between High Gill and Highmarket, his mind was already made up to blackmail.
The place in which they met was an appropriate one--for Stoner's purpose. He had crossed the high ground between the railway and the little moorland town by no definite track, but had come in a bee-line across ling and bracken and heather. All around stretched miles upon miles of solitude--nothing but the undulating moors, broken up by great masses of limestone rock and occasional clumps and coverts of fir and pine; nothing but the blue line of the hills in the west; nothing but the grey northern skies overhead; nothing but the cry of the curlew and the bleating of the mountain sheep. It was in the midst of this that he met his senior employer--at the corner of a thin spinney which ran along the edge of a disused quarry. Mallalieu, as Stoner well knew, was a great man for walking on these moors, and he always walked alone. He took these walks to keep his flesh down; here he came, swinging his heavy oak walking-stick, intent on his own thoughts, and he and Stoner, neither hearing the other's footfall on the soft turf, almost ran into each other. Stoner, taken aback, flushed with the sudden surprise.
But Mallalieu, busied with his own reflections, had no thought of Stoner in his mind, and consequently showed no surprise at meeting him. He made a point of cultivating friendly relations with all who worked for him, and he grinned pleasantly at his clerk.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed cordially. "Taking your walks alone, eh? Now I should ha' thought a young fellow like you would ha' been taking one o' Miss Featherby's little milliners out for a dander, like--down the river-side, what?"
Stoner smiled--not as Mallalieu smiled. He was in no mood for persiflage; if he smiled it was because he thought that things were coming his way, that the game was being played into his hands. And suddenly he made up his mind.
"Something better to do than that, Mr. Mallalieu," he answered pertly. "I don't waste my time on dress-makers' apprentices. Something better to think of than that, sir."
"Oh!" said Mallalieu. "Ah! I thought you looked pretty deep in reflection. What might it be about, like?"
Something within Stoner was urging him on to go straight to the point. No fencing, said this inward monitor, no circumlocution--get to it, straight out. And Stoner thrust his hand into his pocket, and pulled out a copy of the reward bill. He opened it before his employer, watching Mallalieu's face.
"That!" he said. "Just that, Mr. Mallalieu."
Mallalieu glanced at the handbill, started a little, and looked half-sharply, half-angrily, at his clerk.
"What about it?" he growled. His temper, as Stoner well knew, was quickly roused, and it showed signs of awakening now. "What're you showing me that bit o' paper for? Mind your manners, young man!"
"No offence meant," retorted Stoner, coolly. He looked round him, noticed some convenient railings, old and worn, which fenced in the quarry, and stepping back to them, calmly leaned against the top one, put his hands in his pockets and looked at Mallalieu with a glance which was intended to show that he felt himself top dog in any encounter that might come. "I want a word or two with you, Mr. Mallalieu," he said.
Mallalieu, who was plainly amazed by this strange conduct, glared at Stoner.
"You want a word--or two--with--me?" he exclaimed. "For why, pray?--and why here?"
"Here's a convenient spot," said Stoner, with a nasty laugh. "We're all alone. Not a soul near us. You wouldn't like anybody to overhear what I've got to say."
Mallalieu stared at the clerk during a full minute's silence. He had a trick of silently staring people out of countenance. But he found that Stoner was not to be stared down, and eventually he spoke.
"I'll tell you what it is, my lad!" he said. "I don't know whether you've been drinking, or if you've some bee in your bonnet, but I don't allow nobody, and especially a man as I pay wages to, to speak in them tones to me! What d'ye mean by it?"
"I'll tell you what I mean, Mr. Mallalieu," replied Stoner, still regarding his man fixedly, and nerving himself for the contest. "I mean this--I know who killed Kitely!"
Mallalieu felt himself start again; he felt his face flush warm. But he managed to show a fairly controlled front, and he made shift to sneer.
"Oh, indeed," he said, twisting his mouth in derision. "Do you now? Deary me!--it's wonderful how clever some young folks is! So you know who killed Kitely, do you, my lad? Ah! And who did kill Kitely, now? Let's be knowing! Or happen you'd rather keep such a grand secret to yourself--till you can make something out of it?"
"I can make something out of it now," retorted Stoner, who was sharp enough to see through Mallalieu's affectation of scorn. "Just you realize the importance of what I'm saying. I tell you once again--I know who killed Kitely!"
"And who did kill him, then?" demanded Mallalieu. "Psha!--you know naught about it!"
Stoner laughed, looked round, and then leaned his head forward.
"Don't I?" he said, with a sneer that exceeded his employer's in significance and meaning. "But you're wrong--I do! Kitely was murdered by either you or Cotherstone! How's that, Mr. Mallalieu?"
Mallalieu again regarded his clerk in silence. He knew by that time that this fellow was in possession of some information, and his characteristic inclination was to fence with him. And he made a great effort to pull himself together, so as to deal better with whatever might be in store.
"Either me or Mr. Cotherstone!" he repeated sarcastically. "Oh! Now which on us would you be inclined to fix it on, Mr. Stoner? Eh?"
"May have been one, may have been the other, may have been both, for aught I know," retorted Stoner. "But you're both guilty, any way! It's no use, Mr. Mallalieu--I know you killed him. And--I know why!"
Again there was silence, and again a duel of staring eyes. And at its end Mallalieu laughed again, still affecting sneering and incredulous sentiments.
"Aye?--and why did one or t'other or both--have it which way you will--murder this here old gentleman?" he demanded. "Why, Mr. Sharp-nose?"
"I'll tell you--and then you'll know what I know," answered Stoner. "Because the old gentleman was an ex-detective, who was present when you and Cotherstone, under your proper names of Mallows and Chidforth, were tried for fraud at Wilchester Assizes, thirty years ago, and sentenced to two years! That's why, Mr. Mallalieu. The old chap knew it, and he let you know that he knew it, and you killed him to silence him. You didn't want it to get out that the Mayor and Borough Treasurer of Highmarket, so respected, so much thought of, are--a couple of old gaol-birds!"
Mallalieu's hot temper, held very well in check until then, flamed up as Stoner spat out the last contemptuous epithet. He had stood with his right hand behind him, grasping his heavy oaken stick--now, as his rage suddenly boiled, he swung hand and stick round in a savage blow at his tormentor, and the crook of the stick fell crashing against Stoner's temples. So quick was the blow, so sudden the assault, that the clerk had time to do no more than throw up an arm. And as he threw it up, and as the heavy blow fell, the old, rotten railing against which Stoner had leant so nonchalantly, gave way, and he fell back through it, and across the brow of the quarry--and without a sound. Mallalieu heard the crash of his stick on his victim's temples; he heard the rending and crackling of the railings--but he heard neither cry, nor sigh, nor groan from Stoner. Stoner fell backward and disappeared--and then (it seemed an age in coming) Mallalieu's frightened senses were aware of a dull thud somewhere far down in the depths into which he had fallen. Then came silence--deep, heavy silence--broken at last by the cry of a curlew flying across the lonely moor.
Mallalieu was seized with a trembling fit. He began to shake. His heavy frame trembled as if under the effects of a bad ague; the hand which had struck the blow shook so violently that the stick dropped from it. And Mallalieu looked down at the stick, and in a sudden overwhelming rage kicked it away from him over the brink of the quarry. He lifted his fist and shook it--and just as suddenly dropped it. The trembling passed, and he broke out into a cold sweat of fear.
"God ha' mercy!" he muttered. "If--if he's killed? He shouldn't ha' plagued me--he shouldn't ha' dared me! It was more than flesh and blood could stand, and--Lord ha' mercy, what's to be done?"
The autumn twilight was creeping over the moor. The sun had set behind the far-off western hills just before Mallalieu and Stoner had met, and while they talked dusk had come on. The moorlands were now growing dark and vague, and it seemed to Mallalieu that as the light failed the silence increased. He looked round him, fearful lest any of the shepherds of the district had come up to take a Sunday glance at their flocks. And once he thought he saw a figure at a little distance away along the edge of the trees, and he strained and strained his eyes in its direction--and concluded it was nothing. Presently he strained his eyes in another way--he crept cautiously to the edge of the quarry, and looked over the broken railing, and far down on the limestone rocks beneath he saw Stoner, lying on his back, motionless.
Long experience of the moorlands and their nooks and crannies enabled Mallalieu to make his way down to the bottom of the quarry by a descent through a brake of gorse and bramble. He crept along by the undergrowth to where the body lay, and fearfully laid a hand on the still figure. One touch was sufficient--he stood up trembling and shaking more than ever.
"He's dead--dead!" he muttered. "Must ha' broken his neck--it's a good fifty feet down here. Was ever aught so unfortunate! And--whatever shall I say and do about it?"
Inspiration came to him quickly--as quickly as the darkness came into that place of death. He made an effort, and regained his composure, and presently was able to think and to decide. He would say and do nothing--nothing whatever. No one had witnessed the meeting between Stoner and himself. No one had seen the blow. No one had seen Stoner's fall. Far better to say nothing, do nothing--far best to go away and let things take their course. Stoner's body would be found, next day, the day after, some day--and when it was found, people would say that Stoner had been sitting on those rotten railings, and they had given way, and he had fallen--and whatever marks there were on him would be attributed to the fall down the sharp edges of the old quarry.
So Mallalieu presently went away by another route, and made his way back to Highmarket in the darkness of the evening, hiding himself behind hedges and walls until he reached his own house. And it was not until he lay safe in bed that night that he remembered the loss of his stick.