Chapter XVII. The Medical Opinion

The recollection of that stick plunged Mallalieu into another of his ague-like fits of shaking and trembling. There was little sleep for him after that: he spent most of the night in thinking, anticipating, and scheming. That stick would almost certainly be found, and it would be found near Stoner's body. A casual passer-by would not recognize it, a moorland shepherd would not recognize it. But the Highmarket police, to whom it would be handed, would know it at once to be the Mayor's: it was one which Mallalieu carried almost every day--a plain, very stout oak staff. And the police would want to know how it came to be in that quarry. Curse it!--was ever anything so unfortunate!--however could he have so far lost his head as to forget it? He was half tempted to rise in the middle of the night and set out for the moors, to find it. But the night was dark, and solitary as the moors and the quarry where he dared not risk the taking of a lantern. And so he racked his brains in the effort to think of some means of explaining the presence of the stick. He hit on a notion at last--remembering suddenly that Stoner had carried neither stick nor umbrella. If the stick were found he would say that he had left it at the office on the Saturday, and that the clerk must have borrowed it. There was nothing unlikely in that: it was a good reason, it would explain why it came to be found near the body. Naturally, the police would believe the word of the Mayor: it would be a queer thing if they didn't, in Mallalieu's opinion. And therewith he tried to go to sleep, and made a miserable failure of it.

As he lay tossing and groaning in his comfortable bed that night, Mallalieu thought over many things. How had Stoner acquired his information? Did anybody else know what Stoner knew? After much reflection he decided that nobody but Stoner did know. Further reckoning up of matters gave him a theory as to how Stoner had got to know. He saw it all--according to his own idea. Stoner had overheard the conversation between old Kitely and Cotherstone in the private office, of course! That was it--he wondered he had never thought of it before. Between the partners' private room and the outer office in which Stoner sat, there was a little window in the wall; it had been specially made so that papers could be passed from one room to the other. And, of course, on that afternoon it had probably been a little way open, as it often was, and Stoner had heard what passed between Cotherstone and his tenant. Being a deep chap, Stoner had kept the secret to himself until the reward was offered. Of course, his idea was blackmail--Mallalieu had no doubt about that. No--all things considered, he did not believe that Stoner had shared his knowledge--Stoner would be too well convinced of its value to share it with anybody. That conclusion comforted Mallalieu--once more he tried to sleep.

But his sleep was a poor thing that night, and he felt tired and worn when, as usual, he went early to the yard. He was there before Cotherstone; when Cotherstone came, no more than a curt nod was exchanged between them. They had never spoken to each other except on business since the angry scene of a few days before, and now Mallalieu, after a glance at some letters which had come in the previous evening, went off down the yard. He stayed there an hour: when he re-entered the office he looked with an affectation of surprise at the clerk's empty desk.

"Stoner not come?" he demanded curtly.

Cotherstone, who was turning over the leaves of an account book, replied just as curtly.

"Not yet!"

Mallalieu fidgeted about for a while, arranging some papers he had brought in from the yard. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation of impatience, and going to the door, called to a lad who was passing.

"Here, you!" he said. "You know where Mr. Stoner lodges?--Mrs. Battley's. Run round there, and see why he hasn't come to his work. It's an hour and a half past his time. Happen he's poorly--run now, sharp!"

He went off down the yard again when he had despatched this message; he came back to the office ten minutes later, just as the messenger returned.

"Well?" he demanded, with a side-glance to assure himself that Cotherstone was at hand. "Where is he, like?"

"Please, sir, Mrs. Battley, she says as how Mr. Stoner went away on Saturday afternoon, sir," answered the lad, "and he hasn't been home since. She thinks he went to Darlington, sir, on a visit."

Mallalieu turned into the office, growling.

"Must ha' missed his train," he muttered as he put more papers on Stoner's desk. "Here--happen you'll attend to these things--they want booking up."

Cotherstone made no reply, and Mallalieu presently left him and went home to get his breakfast. And as he walked up the road to his house he wondered why Stoner had gone to Darlington. Was it possible that he had communicated what he knew to any of his friends? If so----

"Confound the suspense and the uncertainty!" growled Mallalieu. "It 'ud wear the life out of a man. I've a good mind to throw the whole thing up and clear out! I could do it easy enough wi' my means. A clear track--and no more o' this infernal anxiety."

He reflected, as he made a poor show of eating his breakfast, on the ease with which he could get away from Highmarket and from England. Being a particularly astute man of business, Mallalieu had taken good care that all his eggs were not in one basket. He had many baskets--his Highmarket basket was by no means the principal one. Indeed all that Mallalieu possessed in Highmarket was his share of the business and his private house. As he had made his money he had invested it in easily convertible, gilt-edged securities, which would be realized at an hour's notice in London or New York, Paris or Vienna. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him, as Mayor of Highmarket, to leave the town on Corporation business, and within a few hours to be where nobody could find him; within a few more, to be out of the country. Lately, he had often thought of going right away, to enjoy himself for the rest of his life. He had made one complete disappearance already; why not make another? Before he went townwards again that morning, he was beginning to give serious attention to the idea.

Meanwhile, however, there was the business of the day to attend to, and Stoner's absence threw additional work on the two partners. Then at twelve o'clock, Mallalieu had to go over to the Town Hall to preside at a meeting of the General Purposes Committee. That was just over, and he was thinking of going home to his lunch when the superintendent of police came into the committee-room and drew him aside.

"I've bad news for you, Mr. Mayor," he announced in a whisper. "Your clerk--he hasn't been at work this morning, I suppose?"

"Well?" demanded Mallalieu, nerving himself for what he felt to be coming. "What about it?"

"He's met with a bad accident," replied the superintendent. "In fact, sir, he's dead! A couple of men found his body an hour or so ago in Hobwick Quarry, up on the moor, and it's been brought down to the mortuary. You'd better come round, Mr. Mayor--Mr. Cotherstone's there, now."

Mallalieu followed without a word. But once outside the Town Hall he turned to his companion.

"Have you made aught out of it?" he asked. "He's been away, so his landlady says, since Saturday afternoon: I sent round to inquire for him when he didn't turn up this morning. What do you know, like?"

"It looks as if it had been an accident," answered the superintendent. "These men that found him noticed some broken railings at top of the quarry. They looked down and saw a body. So they made their way down and found--Stoner. It would seem as if he'd leaned or sat on the railings and they'd given way beneath him, and of course he'd pitched headlong into the quarry. It's fifty feet deep, Mr. Mayor! That's all one can think of. But Dr. Rockcliffe's with him now."

Mallalieu made a mighty effort to appear calm, as, with a grave and concerned face, he followed his guide into the place where the doctor, an official or two, and Cotherstone were grouped about the dead man. He gave one glance at his partner and Cotherstone gave one swift look at him--and there was something in Cotherstone's look which communicated a sudden sense of uneasy fear to Mallalieu: it was a look of curious intelligence, almost a sort of signal. And Mallalieu experienced a vague feeling of dread as he turned to the doctor.

"A bad job--a bad job!" he muttered, shaking his head and glancing sideways at the body. "D'ye make aught out of it, doctor? Can you say how it came about?"

Dr. Rockcliffe pursed up his lips and his face became inscrutable. He kept silence for a moment--when he spoke his voice was unusually stern.

"The lad's neck is broken, and his spine's fractured," he said in a low voice. "Either of those injuries was enough to cause death. But--look at that!"

He pointed to a contusion which showed itself with unmistakable plainness on the dead man's left temple, and again he screwed up his lips as if in disgust at some deed present only to the imagination.

"That's a blow!" he said, more sternly than before. "A blow from some blunt instrument! It was a savage blow, too, dealt with tremendous force. It may--may, I say--have killed this poor fellow on the spot--he may have been dead before ever he fell down that quarry."

It was only by an enormous effort of will that Mallalieu prevented himself from yielding to one of his shaking fits.

"But--but mightn't he ha' got that with striking his head against them rocks as he fell?" he suggested. "It's a rocky place, that, and the rocks project, like, so----"

"No!" said the doctor, doggedly. "That's no injury from any rock or stone or projection. It's the result of a particularly fierce blow dealt with great force by some blunt instrument--a life preserver, a club, a heavy stick. It's no use arguing it. That's a certainty!"

Cotherstone, who had kept quietly in the background, ventured a suggestion.

"Any signs of his having been robbed?" he asked.

"No, sir," replied the superintendent promptly. "I've everything that was on him. Not much, either. Watch and chain, half a sovereign, some loose silver and copper, his pipe and tobacco, a pocket-book with a letter or two and such-like in it--that's all. There'd been no robbery."

"I suppose you took a look round?" asked Cotherstone. "See anything that suggested a struggle? Or footprints? Or aught of that sort?"

The superintendent shook his head.

"Naught!" he answered. "I looked carefully at the ground round those broken railings. But it's the sort of ground that wouldn't show footprints, you know--covered with that short, wiry mountain grass that shows nothing."

"And nothing was found?" asked Mallalieu. "No weapons, eh?"

For the life of him he could not resist asking that--his anxiety about the stick was overmastering him. And when the superintendent and the two policemen who had been with him up to Hobwick Quarry had answered that they had found nothing at all, he had hard work to repress a sigh of relief. He presently went away hoping that the oak stick had fallen into a crevice of the rocks or amongst the brambles which grew out of them; there was a lot of tangle-wood about that spot, and it was quite possible that the stick, kicked violently away, had fallen where it would never be discovered. And--there was yet a chance for him to make that possible discovery impossible. Now that the body had been found, he himself could visit the spot with safety, on the pretext of curiosity. He could look round; if he found the stick he could drop it into a safe fissure of the rocks, or make away with it. It was a good notion--and instead of going home to lunch Mallalieu turned into a private room of the Highmarket Arms, ate a sandwich and drank a glass of ale, and hurried off, alone, to the moors.

The news of this second mysterious death flew round Highmarket and the neighbourhood like wild-fire. Brereton heard of it during the afternoon, and having some business in the town in connexion with Harborough's defence, he looked in at the police-station and found the superintendent in an unusually grave and glum mood.

"This sort of thing's getting beyond me, Mr. Brereton," he said in a whisper. "Whether it is that I'm not used to such things--thank God! we've had little experience of violence in this place in my time!--or what it is, but I've got it into my head that this poor young fellow's death's connected in some way with Kitely's affair! I have indeed, sir!--it's been bothering me all the afternoon. For all the doctors--there's been several of 'em in during the last two hours--are absolutely agreed that Stoner was felled, sir--felled by a savage blow, and they say he may ha' been dead before ever he fell over that quarry edge. Mr. Brereton--I misdoubt it's another murder!"

"Have you anything to go on?" asked Brereton. "Had anybody any motive? Was there any love affair--jealousy, you know--anything of that sort?"

"No, I'm sure there wasn't," replied the superintendent. "The whole town and county's ringing with the news, and I should ha' heard something by now. And it wasn't robbery--not that he'd much on him, poor fellow! There's all he had," he went on, opening a drawer. "You can look at 'em, if you like."

He left the room just then, and Brereton, disregarding the cheap watch and chain and the pigskin purse with its light load, opened Stoner's pocket-book. There was not much in that, either--a letter or two, some receipted bills, a couple of much creased copies of the reward bill, some cuttings from newspapers. He turned from these to the pocket-book itself, and on the last written page he found an entry which made him start. For there again were the initials!

"--M. & C.--fraud--bldg. soc.--Wilchester Assizes--81--L2000--money never recovered--2 yrs.--K. pres."

Not much--but Brereton hastily copied that entry. And he had just written the last word when the superintendent came back into the room with a man who was in railway uniform.

"Come in here," the superintendent was saying. "You can tell me what it is before this gentleman. Some news from High Gill junction, Mr. Brereton," he went on, "something about Stoner. Well, my lad, what is it?"

"The station-master sent me over on his bicycle," replied the visitor. "We heard over there this afternoon about Stoner's body being found, and that you were thinking he must have fallen over into the quarry in the darkness. And we know over yonder that that's not likely."

"Aye?" said the superintendent. "Well, as a matter of fact, my lad, we weren't thinking that, but no doubt that rumour's got out. Now why do you railway folks know it isn't likely?"

"That's what I've come to tell," answered the man, a sharp, intelligent-looking fellow. "I'm ticket-collector over there, as you know, sir. Now, young Stoner came to the junction on Saturday afternoon and booked for Darlington, and of course went to Darlington. He came back yesterday afternoon--Sunday--by the train that gets to our junction at 3.3. I took his ticket. Instead of going out of the station by the ordinary way, he got over the fence on the down line side, saying to me that he'd take a straight cut across the moor to Highmarket. I saw him going Highmarket way for some distance. And he'd be at Hobwick Quarry by 4.30 at the latest--long before darkness."

"Just about sunset, as a matter of fact," remarked the superintendent. "The sun sets about 4.18."

"So he couldn't have fallen over in the darkness," continued the ticket-collector. "If all had gone well with him, he'd have been down in Highmarket here by dusk."

"I'm obliged to you," said the superintendent. "It's worth knowing, of course. Came from Darlington, eh? Was he alone?"

"Quite alone, sir."

"You didn't see anybody else going that way across the moors, did you? Didn't notice anybody following him?"

"No," replied the ticket-collector with decision. "Me and one of my mates watched him a long way, and I'll swear there was no one near him till he was out of sight. We didn't watch him on purpose, neither. When the down-train had gone, me and my mate sat down to smoke our pipes, and from where we were we could see right across the moors in this direction. We saw Stoner--now and then, you understand--right away to Chat Bank."

"You didn't notice any suspicious characters come to your station that afternoon or evening?" asked the superintendent.

The ticket-collector replied that nothing of that sort had been seen, and he presently went away. And Brereton, after an unimportant word or two, went away too, certain by that time that the death of Stoner had some sinister connexion with the murder of Kitely.