The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XIX. A Tall Man in Grey Clothes
That question remained unanswered, and Brereton remained silent, until he and Avice had reached the top of the path and had come out on the edge of the wide stretch of moorland above the little town. He paused for a moment and looked back on the roofs and gables of Highmarket, shining and glittering in the moonlight; the girl paused too, wondering at his silence. And with a curious abruptness he suddenly turned, laid a hand on her arm, and gave it a firm, quick pressure.
"Look here!" he said. "I'm going to trust you. I'm going to say to you what I haven't said to a soul in that town!--not even to Tallington, who's a man of the law, nor to Bent, who's my old friend. I want to say something to somebody whom I can trust. I can trust you!"
"Thank you," she answered quietly. "I--I think I understand. And you'll understand, too, won't you, when I say--you can!"
"That's all right," he said, cheerfully. "Of course! Now we understand each other. Come on, then--you know the way--act as guide, and I'll tell you as we go along."
Avice turned off into what appeared to be no more than a sheep-track across the heather. Within a few minutes they were not only quite alone, but out of sight of any human habitation. It seemed to Brereton that they were suddenly shut into a world of their own, as utterly apart from the little world they had just left as one star is from another. But even as he thought this he saw, far away across the rising and falling of the heather-clad undulations, the moving lights of a train that was speeding southward along the coast-line from Norcaster, and presently the long scream of a whistle from its engine came on the light breeze that blew inland from the hidden sea, and the sight and sound recalled him to the stern realities of life.
"Listen, then, carefully," he began. "And bear in mind that I'm putting what I believe to be safety of other men in your hands. It's this way...."
Avice Harborough listened in absolute silence as Brereton told her his carefully arranged story. They walked slowly across the moor as he told it; now dipping into a valley, now rising above the ridge of a low hill; sometimes pausing altogether as he impressed some particular point upon her. In the moonlight he could see that she was listening eagerly and intently, but she never interrupted him and never asked a question. And at last, just as they came in sight of a light that burned in the window of a little moorland cottage, snugly planted in a hollow beneath the ridge which they were then traversing, he brought his story to an end and turned inquiringly to her.
"There!" he said. "That's all. Now try to consider it without prejudice--if you can. How does it appear to you?"
Instead of replying directly the girl walked on in silence for a moment or two, and suddenly turned to Brereton with an impulsive movement.
"You've given me your confidence and I'll give you mine!" she exclaimed. "Perhaps I ought to have given it before--to you or to Mr. Tallington--but--I didn't like. I've wondered about Mallalieu! Wondered if--if he did kill that old man. And wondered if he tried to put the blame on my father out of revenge!"
"Revenge!" exclaimed Brereton. "What do you mean?"
"My father offended him--not so very long ago, either," she answered. "Last year--I'll tell you it all, plainly--Mr. Mallalieu began coming to our cottage at times. First he came to see my father about killing the rats which had got into his out-buildings. Then he made excuses--he used to come, any way--at night. He began to come when my father was out, as he often was. He would sit down and smoke and talk. I didn't like it--I don't like him. Then he used to meet me in the wood in the Shawl, as I came home from the Northrops'. I complained to my father about it and one night my father came in and found him here. My father, Mr. Brereton, is a very queer man and a very plain-spoken man. He told Mr. Mallalieu that neither of us desired his company and told him to go away. And Mr. Mallalieu lost his temper and said angry things."
"And your father?" said Brereton. "Did he lose his temper, too?"
"No!" replied Avice. "He has a temper--but he kept it that night. He never spoke to Mr. Mallalieu in return. He let him say his say--until he'd got across the threshold, and then he just shut the door on him. But--I know how angry Mr. Mallalieu was."
Brereton stood silently considering matters for a moment. Then he pointed to the light in the window beneath them, and moved towards it.
"I'm glad you told me that," he said. "It may account for something that's puzzled me a great deal--I must think it out. But at present--is that the old woman's lamp?"
Avice led the way down to the hollow by a narrow path which took them into a little stone-walled enclosure where a single Scotch fir-tree stood sentinel over a typical moorland homestead of the smaller sort--a one-storied house of rough stone, the roof of which was secured from storm and tempest by great boulders slung on stout ropes, and having built on to it an equally rough shelter for some small stock of cows and sheep. Out of a sheer habit of reflection on things newly seen, Brereton could not avoid wondering what life was like, lived in this solitude, and in such a perfect hermitage--but his speculations were cut short by the opening of the door set deep within the whitewashed porch. An old woman, much bent by age, looked out upon him and Avice, holding a small lamp so that its light fell on their faces.
"Come your ways in, joy!" she said hospitably. "I was expecting you'd come up tonight: I knew you'd want to have a word with me as soon as you could. Come in and sit you down by the fire--it's coldish o' nights, to be sure, and there's frost in the air.
"This gentleman may come in, too, mayn't he, Mrs. Hamthwaite?" asked Avice as she and Brereton stepped within the porch. "He's the lawyer-gentleman who's defending my father--you won't mind speaking before him, will you?"
"Neither before him, nor behind him, nor yet to him," answered Mrs. Hamthwaite with a chuckle. "I've talked to lawyers afore today, many's the time! Come your ways in, sir--sit you down."
She carefully closed the door on her guests and motioned them to seats by a bright fire of turf, and then setting the lamp on the table, seated herself in a corner of her long-settle and folding her hands in her apron took a long look at her visitors through a pair of unusually large spectacles. And Brereton, genuinely interested, took an equally long look at her; and saw a woman who was obviously very old but whose face was eager, intelligent, and even vivacious. As this queer old face turned from one to the other, its wrinkles smoothed out into a smile.
"You'll be wondering what I've got to tell, love," said Mrs. Hamthwaite, turning to Avice. "And no doubt you want to know why I haven't sent for you before now. But you see, since that affair happened down your way, I been away. Aye, I been to see my daughter--as lives up the coast. And I didn't come home till today. And I'm no hand at writing letters. However here we are, and better late than never and no doubt this lawyer gentleman'll be glad to hear what I can tell him and you."
"Very glad indeed!" responded Brereton. "What is it?"
The old woman turned to a box which stood in a recess in the ingle-nook at her elbow and took from it a folded newspaper.
"Me and my daughter and her husband read this here account o' the case against Harborough as it was put before the magistrates," she said. "We studied it. Now you want to know where Harborough was on the night that old fellow was done away with. That's it, master, what?"
"That is it," answered Brereton, pressing his arm against Avice, who sat close at his side. "Yes, indeed! And you----"
"I can tell you where Harborough was between nine o'clock and ten o'clock that night," replied Mrs. Hamthwaite, with a smile that was not devoid of cunning. "I know, if nobody else knows!"
"Where, then?" demanded Brereton.
The old woman leaned forward across the hearth.
"Up here on the moor!" she whispered. "Not five minutes' walk from here. At a bit of a place--Miss there'll know it--called Good Folks' Lift. A little rise i' the ground where the fairies used to dance, you know, master."
"You saw him?" asked Brereton.
"I saw him," chuckled Mrs. Hamthwaite. "And if I don't know him, why then, his own daughter doesn't!"
"You'd better tell us all about it," said Brereton.
Mrs. Hamthwaite gave him a sharp look. "I've given evidence to law folks before today," she said. "You'll want to know what I could tell before a judge, like?"
"Of course," replied Brereton.
"Well, then----" she continued. "You see, master, since my old man died, I've lived all alone up here. I've a bit to live on--not over much, but enough. All the same, if I can save a bit by getting a hare or a rabbit, or a bird or two now and then, off the moor--well, I do! We all of us does that, as lives on the moor: some folks calls it poaching, but we call it taking our own. Now then, on that night we're talking about, I went along to Good Folks' Lift to look at some snares I'd set early that day. There's a good deal of bush and scrub about that place--I was amongst the bushes when I heard steps, and I looked out and saw a tall man in grey clothes coming close by. How did I know he were in grey clothes? Why, 'cause he stopped close by me to light his pipe! But he'd his back to me, so I didn't see his full face, only a side of it. He were a man with a thin, greyish beard. Well, he walks past there, not far--and then I heard other steps. Then I heard your father's voice, miss--and I see the two of 'em meet. They stood, whispering together, for a minute or so--then they came back past me, and they went off across the moor towards Hexendale. And soon they were out of sight, and when I'd finished what I was after I came my ways home. That's all, master--but if yon old man was killed down in Highmarket Shawl Wood between nine and ten o'clock that night, then Jack Harborough didn't kill him, for Jack was up here at soon after nine, and him and the tall man went away in the opposite direction!"
"You're sure about the time?" asked Brereton anxiously.
"Certain, master! It was ten minutes to nine when I went out--nearly ten when I come back. My clock's always right--I set it by the almanack and the sunrise and sunset every day--and you can't do better," asserted Mrs. Hamthwaite.
"You're equally sure about the second man being Harborough?" insisted Brereton. "You couldn't be mistaken?"
"Mistaken? No!--master, I know Harborough's voice, and his figure, aye, and his step as well as I know my own fireside," declared Mrs. Hamthwaite. "Of course I know it were Harborough--no doubt on't!"
"How are you sure that this was the evening of the murder?" asked Brereton. "Can you prove that it was?"
"Easy!" said Mrs. Hamthwaite. "The very next morning I went away to see my daughter up the coast. I heard of the old man's murder at High Gill Junction. But I didn't hear then that Harborough was suspected--didn't hear that till later on, when we read it in the newspapers."
"And the other man--the tall man in grey clothes, who has a slightly grey beard--you didn't know him?"
Mrs. Hamthwaite made a face which seemed to suggest uncertainty.
"Well, I'll tell you," she answered. "I believe him to be a man that I have seen about this here neighbourhood two or three times during this last eighteen months or so. If you really want to know, I'm a good deal about them moors o' nights; old as I am, I'm very active, and I go about a goodish bit--why not? And I have seen a man about now and then--months between, as a rule--that I couldn't account for--and I believe it's this fellow that was with Harborough."
"And you say they went away in the direction of Hexendale?" said Brereton. "Where is Hexendale?"
The old woman pointed westward.
"Inland," she answered. "Over yonder. Miss there knows Hexendale well enough."
"Hexendale is a valley--with a village of the same name in it--that lies about five miles away on the other side of the moors," said Avice. "There's another line of railway there--this man Mrs. Hamthwaite speaks of could come and go by that."
"Well," remarked Brereton presently, "we're very much obliged to you, ma'am, and I'm sure you won't have any objection to telling all this again at the proper time and place, eh?"
"Eh, bless you, no!" answered Mrs. Hamthwaite. "I'll tell it wherever you like, master--before Lawyer Tallington, or the magistrates, or the crowner, or anybody! But I'll tell you what, if you'll take a bit of advice from an old woman--you're a sharp-looking young man, and I'll tell you what I should do if I were in your place--now then!"
"Well, what?" asked Brereton good-humouredly.
Mrs. Hamthwaite clapped him on the shoulder as she opened the door for her visitors.
"Find that tall man in the grey clothes!" she said. "Get hold of him! He's the chap you want!"
Brereton went silently away, meditating on the old woman's last words.
"But where are we to find him?" he suddenly exclaimed. "Who is he?"
"I don't think that puzzles me," remarked Avice. "He's the man who sent the nine hundred pounds."
Brereton smote his stick on the heather at their feet.
"By George!--I never thought of that!" he exclaimed. "I shouldn't wonder!--I shouldn't wonder at all. Hooray!--we're getting nearer and nearer to something."
But he knew that still another step was at hand--an unpleasant, painful step--when, on getting back to Bent's, an hour later, Bent told him that Lettie had been cajoled into fixing the day of the wedding, and that the ceremony was to take place with the utmost privacy that day week.