Chapter II. Crime--and Success

For some moments after Kitely had left him, Cotherstone stood vacantly staring at the chair in which the blackmailer had sat. As yet he could not realize things. He was only filled with a queer, vague amazement about Kitely himself. He began to look back on his relations with Kitely. They were recent--very recent, only of yesterday, as you might say. Kitely had come to him, one day about three months previously, told him that he had come to these parts for a bit of a holiday, taken a fancy to a cottage which he, Cotherstone, had to let, and inquired its rent. He had mentioned, casually, that he had just retired from business, and wanted a quiet place wherein to spend the rest of his days. He had taken the cottage, and given his landlord satisfactory references as to his ability to pay the rent--and Cotherstone, always a busy man, had thought no more about him. Certainly he had never anticipated such an announcement as that which Kitely had just made to him--never dreamed that Kitely had recognized him and Mallalieu as men he had known thirty years ago.

It had been Cotherstone's life-long endeavour to forget all about the event of thirty years ago, and to a large extent he had succeeded in dulling his memory. But Kitely had brought it all back--and now everything was fresh to him. His brows knitted and his face grew dark as he thought of one thing in his past of which Kitely had spoken so easily and glibly--the dock. He saw himself in that dock again--and Mallalieu standing by him. They were not called Mallalieu and Cotherstone then, of course. He remembered what their real names were--he remembered, too, that, until a few minutes before, he had certainly not repeated them, even to himself, for many a long year. Oh, yes--he remembered everything--he saw it all again. The case had excited plenty of attention in Wilchester at the time--Wilchester, that for thirty years had been so far away in thought and in actual distance that it might have been some place in the Antipodes. It was not a nice case--even now, looking back upon it from his present standpoint, it made him blush to think of. Two better-class young working-men, charged with embezzling the funds of a building society to which they had acted as treasurer and secretary!--a bad case. The Court had thought it a bad case, and the culprits had been sentenced to two years' imprisonment. And now Cotherstone only remembered that imprisonment as one remembers a particularly bad dream. Yes--it had been real.

His eyes, moody and brooding, suddenly shifted their gaze from the easy chair to his own hands--they were shaking. Mechanically he took up the whisky decanter from his desk, and poured some of its contents into his glass--the rim of the glass tinkled against the neck of the decanter. Yes--that had been a shock, right enough, he muttered to himself, and not all the whisky in the world would drive it out of him. But a drink--neat and stiff--would pull his nerves up to pitch, and so he drank, once, twice, and sat down with the glass in his hand--to think still more.

That old Kitely was shrewd--shrewd! He had at once hit on a fact which those Wilchester folk of thirty years ago had never suspected. It had been said at the time that the two offenders had lost the building society's money in gambling and speculation, and there had been grounds for such a belief. But that was not so. Most of the money had been skilfully and carefully put where the two conspirators could lay hands on it as soon as it was wanted, and when the term of imprisonment was over they had nothing to do but take possession of it for their own purposes. They had engineered everything very well--Cotherstone's essentially constructive mind, regarding their doings from the vantage ground of thirty years' difference, acknowledged that they had been cute, crafty, and cautious to an admirable degree of perfection. Quietly and unobtrusively they had completely disappeared from their own district in the extreme South of England, when their punishment was over. They had let it get abroad that they were going to another continent, to retrieve the past and start a new life; it was even known that they repaired to Liverpool, to take ship for America. But in Liverpool they had shuffled off everything of the past--names, relations, antecedents. There was no reason why any one should watch them out of the country, but they had adopted precautions against such watching. They separated, disappeared, met again in the far North, in a sparsely-populated, lonely country of hill and dale, led there by an advertisement which they had seen in a local newspaper, met with by sheer chance in a Liverpool hotel. There was an old-established business to sell as a going concern, in the dale town of Highmarket: the two ex-convicts bought it. From that time they were Anthony Mallalieu and Milford Cotherstone, and the past was dead.

During the thirty years in which that past had been dead, Cotherstone had often heard men remark that this world of ours is a very small one, and he had secretly laughed at them. To him and to his partner the world had been wide and big enough. They were now four hundred miles away from the scene of their crime. There was nothing whatever to bring Wilchester people into that northern country, nothing to take Highmarket folk anywhere near Wilchester. Neither he nor Mallalieu ever went far afield--London they avoided with particular care, lest they should meet any one there who had known them in the old days. They had stopped at home, and minded their business, year in and year out. Naturally, they had prospered. They had speedily become known as hard-working young men; then as good employers of labour; finally as men of considerable standing in a town of which there were only some five thousand inhabitants. They had been invited to join in public matters--Mallalieu had gone into the Town Council first; Cotherstone had followed him later. They had been as successful in administering the affairs of the little town as in conducting their own, and in time both had attained high honours: Mallalieu was now wearing the mayoral chain for the second time; Cotherstone, as Borough Treasurer, had governed the financial matters of Highmarket for several years. And as he sat there, staring at the red embers of the office fire, he remembered that there were no two men in the whole town who were more trusted and respected than he and his partner--his partner in success ... and in crime.

But that was not all. Both men had married within a few years of their coming to Highmarket. They had married young women of good standing in the neighbourhood; it was perhaps well, reflected Cotherstone, that their wives were dead, and that Mallalieu had never been blessed with children. But Cotherstone had a daughter, of whom he was as fond as he was proud; for her he had toiled and contrived, always intending her to be a rich woman. He had seen to it that she was well educated; he had even allowed himself to be deprived of her company for two years while she went to an expensive school, far away; since she had grown up, he had surrounded her with every comfort. And now, as Kitely had reminded him, she was engaged to be married to the most promising young man in Highmarket, Windle Bent, a rich manufacturer, who had succeeded to and greatly developed a fine business, who had already made his mark on the Town Council, and was known to cherish Parliamentary ambitions. Everybody knew that Bent had a big career before him; he had all the necessary gifts; all the proper stuff in him for such a career. He would succeed; he would probably win a title for himself--a baronetcy, perhaps a peerage. This was just the marriage which Cotherstone desired for Lettie; he would die more than happy if he could once hear her called Your Ladyship. And now here was--this!

Cotherstone sat there a long time, thinking, reflecting, reckoning up things. The dusk had come; the darkness followed; he made no movement towards the gas bracket. Nothing mattered but his trouble. That must be dealt with. At all costs, Kitely's silence must be purchased--aye, even if it cost him and Mallalieu one-half of what they had. And, of course, Mallalieu must be told--at once.

A tap of somebody's knuckles on the door of the private room roused him at last, and he sprang up and seized a box of matches as he bade the person without to enter. The clerk came in, carrying a sheaf of papers, and Cotherstone bustled to the gas.

"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "I've dropped off into a nod over this warm fire, Stoner. What's that--letters?"

"There's all these letters to sign, Mr. Cotherstone, and these three contracts to go through," answered the clerk. "And there are those specifications to examine, as well."

"Mr. Mallalieu'll have to see those," said Cotherstone. He lighted the gas above his desk, put the decanter and the glasses aside, and took the letters. "I'll sign these, anyhow," he said, "and then you can post 'em as you go home. The other papers'll do tomorrow morning."

The clerk stood slightly behind his master as Cotherstone signed one letter after the other, glancing quickly through each. He was a young man of twenty-two or three, with quick, observant manners, a keen eye, and a not handsome face, and as he stood there the face was bent on Cotherstone with a surmising look. Stoner had noticed his employer's thoughtful attitude, the gloom in which Cotherstone sat, the decanter on the table, the glass in Cotherstone's hand, and he knew that Cotherstone was telling a fib when he said he had been asleep. He noticed, too, the six sovereigns and the two or three silver coins lying on the desk, and he wondered what had made his master so abstracted that he had forgotten to pocket them. For he knew Cotherstone well, and Cotherstone was so particular about money that he never allowed even a penny to lie out of place.

"There!" said Cotherstone, handing back the batch of letters. "You'll be going now, I suppose. Put those in the post. I'm not going just yet, so I'll lock up the office. Leave the outer door open--Mr. Mallalieu's coming back."

He pulled down the blinds of the private room when Stoner had gone, and that done he fell to walking up and down, awaiting his partner. And presently Mallalieu came, smoking a cigar, and evidently in as good humour as usual.

"Oh, you're still here?" he said as he entered. "I--what's up?"

He had come to a sudden halt close to his partner, and he now stood staring at him. And Cotherstone, glancing past Mallalieu's broad shoulder at a mirror, saw that he himself had become startlingly pale and haggard. He looked twenty years older than he had looked when he shaved himself that morning.

"Aren't you well?" demanded Mallalieu. "What is it?"

Cotherstone made no answer. He walked past Mallalieu and looked into the outer office. The clerk had gone, and the place was only half-lighted. But Cotherstone closed the door with great care, and when he went back to Mallalieu he sank his voice to a whisper.

"Bad news!" he said. "Bad--bad news!"

"What about?" asked Mallalieu. "Private? Business?"

Cotherstone put his lips almost close to Mallalieu's ear.

"That man Kitely--my new tenant," he whispered. "He's met us--you and me--before!"

Mallalieu's rosy cheeks paled, and he turned sharply on his companion.

"Met--us!" he exclaimed. "Him! Where?--when?"

Cotherstone got his lips still closer.

"Wilchester!" he answered. "Thirty years ago. He--knows!"

Mallalieu dropped into the nearest chair: dropped as if he had been shot. His face, full of colour from the keen air outside, became as pale as his partner's; his jaw fell, his mouth opened; a strained look came into his small eyes.

"Gad!" he muttered hoarsely. "You--you don't say so!"

"It's a fact," answered Cotherstone. "He knows everything. He's an ex-detective. He was there--that day."

"Tracked us down?" asked Mallalieu. "That it?"

"No," said Cotherstone. "Sheer chance--pure accident. Recognized us--after he came here. Aye--after all these years! Thirty years!"

Mallalieu's eyes, roving about the room, fell on the decanter. He pulled himself out of his chair, found a clean glass, and took a stiff drink. And his partner, watching him, saw that his hands, too, were shaking.

"That's a facer!" said Mallalieu. His voice had grown stronger, and the colour came back to his cheeks. "A real facer! As you say--after thirty years! It's hard--it's blessed hard! And--what does he want? What's he going to do?"

"Wants to blackmail us, of course," replied Cotherstone, with a mirthless laugh. "What else should he do? What could he do? Why, he could tell all Highmarket who we are, and----"

"Aye, aye!--but the thing is here," interrupted Mallalieu.

"Supposing we do square him?--is there any reliance to be placed on him then? It 'ud only be the old game--he'd only want more."

"He said an annuity," remarked Cotherstone, thoughtfully. "And he added significantly, that he was getting an old man."

"How old?" demanded Mallalieu.

"Between sixty and seventy," said Cotherstone. "I'm under the impression that he could be squared, could be satisfied. He'll have to be! We can't let it get out--I can't, any way. There's my daughter to think of."

"D'ye think I'd let it get out?" asked Mallalieu. "No!--all I'm thinking of is if we really can silence him. I've heard of cases where a man's paid blackmail for years and years, and been no better for it in the end."

"Well--he's coming here tomorrow afternoon some time," said Cotherstone. "We'd better see him--together. After all, a hundred a year--a couple of hundred a year--'ud be better than--exposure."

Mallalieu drank off his whisky and pushed the glass aside.

"I'll consider it," he remarked. "What's certain sure is that he'll have to be quietened. I must go--I've an appointment. Are you coming out?"

"Not yet," replied Cotherstone. "I've all these papers to go through. Well, think it well over. He's a man to be feared."

Mallalieu made no answer. He, like Kitely, went off without a word of farewell, and Cotherstone was once more left alone.