Chapter XVIII. The Scrap Book
 

Brereton went back to his friend's house more puzzled than ever by the similarity of the entries in Kitely's memoranda and in Stoner's pocket-book. Bent had gone over to Norcaster that afternoon, on business, and was not to be home until late in the evening: Brereton accordingly dined alone and had ample time to reflect and to think. The reflecting and the thinking largely took the form of speculating--on the fact that certain terms and figures which had been set down by Kitely had also been set down by Stoner. There were the initials--M. & C. There was a date--if it was a date--81. What in Kitely's memorandum the initials S. B. might mean, it was useless to guess at. His memorandum, indeed, was as cryptic as an Egyptian hieroglyph. But Stoner's memorandum was fuller, more explicit. The M. & C. of the Kitely entry had been expanded to Mallows and Chidforth. The entry "fraud" and the other entries "Wilchester Assizes" and the supplementary words, clearly implied that two men named Mallows and Chidforth were prosecuted at Wilchester Assizes in the year 1881 for fraud, that a sum of L2,000 was involved, which was never recovered, that Mallows and Chidforth, whoever they were, were convicted and were sentenced to two years' imprisonment. So much for Stoner's memorandum. But did it refer to the same event to which Kitely made reference in his memorandum? It seemed highly probable that it did. It seemed highly probable, too, that the M. & C. of Kitely's entry were the Mallows & Chidforth of Stoner's. And now the problem narrowed to one most serious and crucial point--were the Mallows and Chidforth of these references the Mallalieu and Cotherstone of Highmarket.

Speculating on this possibility, Brereton after his solitary dinner went into Bent's smoking-room, and throwing himself into a chair before the fire, lighted his pipe and proceeded to think things out. It was abundantly clear to him by that time that Kitely and Stoner had been in possession of a secret: it seemed certain that both had been murdered by some person who desired to silence them. There was no possible doubt as to Kitely's murder: from what Brereton had heard that afternoon there seemed to be just as little doubt that Stoner had also been murdered. He had heard what the local medical men had to say--one and all agreed that though the clerk had received injuries in his fall which would produce almost instantaneous death he had received a mortal blow before he fell. Who struck that blow? Everything seemed to point to the fact that the man who struck it was the man who strangled Kitely--a man of great muscular power.

Glancing around the room as he sat in a big easy chair, his hands behind his head, Brereton's eyes fell suddenly on Kitely's legacy to Windle Bent. The queer-looking old volume which, because of its black calf binding and brass clasp, might easily have been taken for a prayer-book, lay just where Bent had set it down on his desk when Christopher Pett formally handed it over--so far as Brereton knew Bent up to now had never even opened it. And it was with no particular motive that Brereton now reached out and picked it up, and unsnapping the clasp began idly to turn over the leaves on which the old detective had pasted cuttings from newspapers and made entries in his crabbed handwriting. Brereton believed that he was idly handling what Pett had jocosely described the book to be--a mere scrap-book. It never entered his head that he held in his hands almost the whole solution of the mystery which was puzzling him.

No man knows how inspiration comes to him, and Brereton never knew how it was that suddenly, in the flash of an eye, in the swiftness of thought, he knew that he had found what he wanted. Suggestion might have had something to do with it. Kitely had written the word Scrap-book on the first blank page. Afterwards, at the tops of pages, he had filled in dates in big figures--for reference--1875--1879--1887--and so on. And Brereton suddenly saw, and understood, and realized. The cryptic entry in Kitely's pocket-book became plain as the plainest print. M. & C. v. S. B. cir. 81:--Brereton could amplify that now. Kitely, like all men who dabble in antiquarian pursuits, knew a bit of Latin, and naturally made an occasional airing of his knowledge. The full entry, of course, meant M. &. C. vide (=see) Scrap-Book circa (=about) 1881.

With a sharp exclamation of delight, Brereton turned over the pages of that queer record of crime and detection until he came to one over which the figure 1881 stood out boldly. A turn or two more of pages, and he had found what he wanted. There it was--a long cutting from what was evidently a local newspaper--a cutting which extended over two or three leaves of the book--and at the end a memorandum in Kitely's handwriting, evidently made some years before. The editor of that local newspaper had considered the case which Kitely had so carefully scissored from his columns worthy of four headlines in big capitals:--

THE BUILDING SOCIETY DEFALCATIONS MALLOWS AND CHIDFORTH AT THE WILCHESTER ASSIZES VERDICT AND SENTENCE

Brereton settled down to a careful reading of the report. There was really nothing very remarkable about it--nothing exciting nor sensational. It was indeed no more than a humdrum narrative of a vulgar crime. But it was necessary that he should know all about it, and be able to summarize it, and so he read it over with unusual care. It was a very plain story--there were no complications. It appeared from the evidence adduced that for some time previous to 1881 there had been in existence in Wilchester a building society, the members of which were chiefly of the small tradesman and better-class working-man order. Its chief officials for a year or two had been John Mallows and Mark Chidforth, who were respectively treasurer and secretary. Mallows was foreman to a builder in the town; Chidforth was clerk to the same employer. Both were young men. They were evidently regarded as smart fellows. Up to the time of the revelations they had borne the very best of characters. Each had lived in Wilchester since childhood; each had continued his education at night schools and institute classes after the usual elementary school days were over; each was credited with an ambitious desire to rise in the world. Each, as a young man, was attached to religious organizations--Mallows was a sidesman at one of the churches, Chidforth was a Sunday-school teacher at one of the chapels. Both had been fully and firmly trusted, and it appeared from the evidence that they had had what practically amounted to unsupervised control of the building society's funds. And--the really important point--there was no doubt whatever that they had helped themselves to some two thousand pounds of their fellow-members' money.

All this was clear enough: it took little time for Brereton to acquaint himself with these facts. What was not so clear was the whereabouts or disposal of the money. From the evidence there appeared to be two conflicting notions current in Wilchester at the time. Some people apparently believed confidently that the two culprits had lost the money in secret speculation and in gambling: other people were just as certain that they had quietly put the money away in some safe quarter. The prisoners themselves absolutely refused to give the least scrap of information: ever since their arrest they had maintained a stolid silence and a defiant demeanour. More than once during the progress of the trial they had opportunities of making clean breasts of their misdoings and refused to take them. Found guilty, they were put back until next day for sentence--that, of course, was to give them another chance of saying what they had done with the money. But they had kept up their silence to the end, and they had been sentenced to two years' imprisonment, with hard labour, and so had disappeared from public view, with their secret--if there really was a secret--intact.

So much for the newspaper cutting from the Wilchester Sentinel. But there was more to read. The cutting came to an end on the top half of a page in the scrap-book; underneath it on the blank half of the page Kitely had made an entry, dated three years after the trial.

"Wilchester: June 28, 1884. Re above. Came down here on business today and had a talk with police about M. & C. and the money. M. & C. never been heard of since their release. Were released at same time, and seen in the town an hour or two later, after which they disappeared--a man who spoke to M. says that M. told him they were going to emigrate. They are believed to have gone to Argentine. Both had relatives in Wilchester, but either they don't know anything of M. & C.'s subsequent doings, or they keep silence. No further trace of money, and opinion still divided as to what they really did with it: many people in W. firmly convinced that they had it safely planted, and have gone to it."

To Brereton the whole affair was now as plain as a pikestaff. The old detective, accidentally settling down at Highmarket, had recognized Mallalieu and Cotherstone, the prosperous tradesmen of that little, out-of-the-way town, as the Mallows and Chidforth whom he had seen in the dock at Wilchester, and he had revealed his knowledge to one or the other or both. That was certain. But there were many things that were far from certain. What had happened when Kitely revealed himself as a man who had been a witness of their conviction in those far-off days? How had he revealed himself? Had he endeavoured to blackmail them? It was possible.

But there was still more to think over. How had the dead clerk, Stoner, got his knowledge of this great event in the life of his employers? Had he got it from Kitely? That was not likely. Yet Stoner had written down in his pocket-book an entry which was no more and no less than a precis of the absolute facts. Somehow, somewhere, Stoner had made himself fully acquainted with Mallalieu and Cotherstone's secret. Did Stoner's death arise out of a knowledge of that secret? On the face of things there could be little doubt that it did. Who, then, struck the blow which killed Stoner, or, if it did not actually kill him, caused his death by bringing about the fall which broke his neck? Was it Mallalieu?--or was it Cotherstone?

That one or other, or both, were guilty of Kitely's murder, and possibly of Stoner's, Brereton was by that time absolutely certain. And realizing that certainty, he felt himself placed in a predicament which could not fail to be painful. It was his duty, as counsel for an innocent man, to press to the full his inquiries into the conduct of men whom he believed to be guilty. In this he was faced with an unpleasant situation. He cared nothing about Mallalieu. If Mallalieu was a guilty man, let Mallalieu pay the richly-deserved consequences of his misdeeds. Brereton, without being indifferent or vindictive or callous, knew that it would not give him one extra heart-throb if he heard Mallalieu found guilty and sentenced to the gallows. But Cotherstone was the father of the girl to whom Windle Bent was shortly to be married--and Bent and Brereton had been close friends ever since they first went to school together.

It was a sad situation, an unpleasant thing to face. He had come on a visit to Bent, he had prolonged that visit in order to defend a man whom he firmly believed to be as innocent as a child--and now he was to bring disgrace and shame on a family with whom his host and friend was soon to be allied by the closest of ties. But--better that than that an innocent man should suffer! And walking up and down Bent's smoking-room, and thinking the whole thing through and through, he half made up his mind to tell Bent all about it when he returned.

Brereton presently put on hat and coat and left the house. It was then half-past seven; a sharp, frosty November evening, with an almost full moon rising in a clear, star-sprinkled sky. The sudden change from the warmth of the house to the frost-laden atmosphere of the hillside quickened his mental faculties; he lighted his pipe, and resolved to take a brisk walk along the road which led out of Highmarket and to occupy himself with another review of the situation. A walk in the country by day or night and in solitude had always had attractions for Brereton and he set out on this with zest. But he had not gone a hundred yards in the direction of the moors when Avice Harborough came out of the gate of Northrop's garden and met him.

"I was coming to see you," she said quietly. "I have heard something that I thought you ought to hear, too--at once."

"Yes?" responded Brereton.

Avice drew an envelope from her muff and gave it to him.

"A boy brought that to me half an hour ago," she said. "It is from an old woman, Mrs. Hamthwaite, who lives in a very lonely place on the moors up above Hobwick Quarry. Can you read it in this light?"

"I will," answered Brereton, drawing a scrap of paper from the envelope. "Here," he went on, giving it back to Avice, "you hold it, and I'll strike a match--the moonlight's scarcely strong enough. Now," he continued, taking a box of vestas from his pocket and striking one, "steady--'If Miss Harborough will come up to see Susan Hamthwaite I will tell you something that you might like to know.' Ah!" he exclaimed, throwing away the match. "Now, how far is it to this old woman's cottage?"

"Two miles," replied Avice.

"Can you go there now?" he asked.

"I thought of doing so," she answered.

"Come along, then," said Brereton. "We'll go together. If she objects to my presence I'll leave you with her and wait about for you. Of course, she wants to tell you something relating to your father."

"You think so?" said Avice. "I only hope it is!"

"Certain to be," he replied. "What else could it be?"

"There are so many strange things to tell about, just now," she remarked. "Besides, if old Mrs. Hamthwaite knows anything, why hasn't she let me know until tonight?"

"Oh, there's no accounting for that!" said Brereton. "Old women have their own way of doing things. By the by," he continued, as they turned out of the road and began to climb a path which led to the first ridge of the moors outside the town, "I haven't seen you today--you've heard of this Stoner affair?"

"Mr. Northrop told me this afternoon," she replied. "What do you think about it?"

Brereton walked on a little way without replying. He was asking a serious question of himself. Should he tell all he knew to Avice Harborough?