Chapter XXII. The Hand in the Darkness

The Highmarket clocks were striking noon when Mallalieu was arrested. For three hours he remained under lock and key, in a room in the Town Hall--most of the time alone. His lunch was brought to him; every consideration was shown him. The police wanted to send for his solicitor from Norcaster; Mallalieu bade them mind their own business. He turned a deaf ear to the superintendent's entreaties to him to see some friend; let him mind his own business too, said Mallalieu. He himself would do nothing until he saw the need to do something. Let him hear what could be brought against him--time enough to speak and act then. He ate his lunch, he smoked a cigar; he walked out of the room with defiant eye and head erect when they came to fetch him before a specially summoned bench of his fellow-magistrates. And it was not until he stepped into the dock, in full view of a crowded court, and amidst quivering excitement, that he and Cotherstone met.

The news of the partners' arrest had flown through the little town like wildfire. There was no need to keep it secret; no reason why it should be kept secret. It was necessary to bring the accused men before the magistrates as quickly as possible, and the days of private inquiries were long over. Before the Highmarket folk had well swallowed their dinners, every street in the town, every shop, office, bar-parlour, public-house, private house rang with the news--Mallalieu and Cotherstone, the Mayor and the Borough Treasurer, had been arrested for the murder of their clerk, and would be put before the magistrates at three o'clock. The Kitely affair faded into insignificance--except amongst the cute and knowing few, who immediately began to ask if the Hobwick Quarry murder had anything to do with the murder on the Shawl.

If Mallalieu and Cotherstone could have looked out of the windows of the court in the Town Hall, they would have seen the Market Square packed with a restless and seething crowd of townsfolk, all clamouring for whatever news could permeate from the packed chamber into which so few had been able to fight a way. But the prisoners seemed strangely indifferent to their surroundings. Those who watched them closely--as Brereton and Tallington did--noticed that neither took any notice of the other. Cotherstone had been placed in the dock first. When Mallalieu was brought there, a moment later, the two exchanged one swift glance and no more--Cotherstone immediately moved off to the far corner on the left hand, Mallalieu remained in the opposite one, and placing his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, he squared his shoulders and straitened his big frame and took a calm and apparently contemptuous look round about him.

Brereton, sitting at a corner of the solicitor's table, and having nothing to do but play the part of spectator, watched these two men carefully and with absorbed interest from first to last. He was soon aware of the vastly different feelings with which they themselves watched the proceedings. Cotherstone was eager and restless; he could not keep still; he moved his position; he glanced about him; he looked as if he were on the verge of bursting into indignant or explanatory speech every now and then--though, as a matter of fact, he restrained whatever instinct he had in that direction. But Mallalieu never moved, never changed his attitude. His expression of disdainful, contemptuous watchfulness never left him--after the first moments and the formalities were over, he kept his eyes on the witness-box and on the people who entered it. Brereton, since his first meeting with Mallalieu, had often said to himself that the Mayor of Highmarket had the slyest eyes of any man he had even seen--but he was forced to admit now that, however sly Mallalieu's eyes were, they could, on occasion, be extraordinarily steady.

The truth was that Mallalieu was playing a part. He had outlined it, unconsciously, when he said to the superintendent that it would be time enough for him to do something when he knew what could be brought against him. And now all his attention was given to the two or three witnesses whom the prosecution thought it necessary to call. He wanted to know who they were. He curbed his impatience while the formal evidence of arrest was given, but his ears pricked a little when he heard one of the police witnesses speak of the warrant having been issued on information received. "What information? Received from whom? He half-turned as a sharp official voice called the name of the first important witness.

"David Myler!"

Mallalieu stared at David Myler as if he would tear whatever secret he had out of him with a searching glance. Who was David Myler? No Highmarket man--that was certain. Who was he, then?--what did he know?--was he some detective who had been privately working up this case? A cool, quiet, determined-looking young fellow, anyway. Confound him! But--what had he to do with this?

Those questions were speedily answered for Mallalieu. He kept his immovable attitude, his immobile expression, while Myler told the story of Stoner's visit to Darlington, and of the revelation which had resulted. And nothing proved his extraordinary command over his temper and his feelings better than the fact that as Myler narrated one damning thing after another, he never showed the least concern or uneasiness.

But deep within himself Mallalieu was feeling a lot. He knew now that he had been mistaken in thinking that Stoner had kept his knowledge to himself. He also knew what line the prosecution was taking. It was seeking to show that Stoner was murdered by Cotherstone and himself, or by one or other, separately or in collusion, in order that he might be silenced. But he knew more than that. Long practice and much natural inclination had taught Mallalieu the art of thinking ahead, and he could foresee as well as any man of his acquaintance. He foresaw the trend of events in this affair. This was only a preliminary. The prosecution was charging him and Cotherstone with the murder of Stoner today: it would be charging them with the murder of Kitely tomorrow.

Myler's evidence caused a profound sensation in court--but there was even more sensation and more excitement when Myler's father-in-law followed him in the witness-box. It was literally in a breathless silence that the old man told the story of the crime of thirty years ago; it was a wonderfully dramatic moment when he declared that in spite of the long time that had elapsed he recognized the Mallalieu and Cotherstone of Highmarket as the Mallows and Chidforth whom he had known at Wilchester.

Even then Mallalieu had not flinched. Cotherstone flushed, grew restless, hung his head a little, looked as if he would like to explain. But Mallalieu continued to stare fixedly across the court. He cared nothing that the revelation had been made at last. Now that it had been made, in full publicity, he did not care a brass farthing if every man and woman in Highmarket knew that he was an ex-gaol-bird. That was far away in the dead past--what he cared about was the present and the future. And his sharp wits told him that if the evidence of Myler and of old Pursey was all that the prosecution could bring against him, he was safe. That there had been a secret, that Stoner had come into possession of it, that Stoner was about to make profit of it, was no proof that he and Cotherstone, or either of them, had murdered Stoner. No--if that was all....

But in another moment Mallalieu knew that it was not all. Up to that moment he had firmly believed that he had got away from Hobwick Quarry unobserved. Here he was wrong. He had now to learn that a young man from Norcaster had come over to Highmarket that Sunday afternoon to visit his sweetheart; that this couple had gone up the moors; that they were on the opposite side of Hobwick Quarry when he went down into it after Stoner's fall; that they had seen him move about and finally go away; what was more, they had seen Cotherstone descend into the quarry and recover the stick; Cotherstone had passed near them as they stood hidden in the bushes; they had seen the stick in his hand.

When Mallalieu heard all this and saw his stick produced and identified, he ceased to take any further interest in that stage of the proceedings. He knew the worst now, and he began to think of his plans and schemes. And suddenly, all the evidence for that time being over, and the magistrates and the officials being in the thick of some whispered consultations about the adjournment, Mallalieu spoke for the first time.

"I shall have my answer about all this business at the right time and place," he said loudly. "My partner can do what he likes. All I have to say now is that I ask for bail. You can fix it at any amount you like. You all know me."

The magistrates and the officials looked across the well of the court in astonishment, and the chairman, a mild old gentleman who was obviously much distressed by the revelation, shook his head deprecatingly.

"Impossible!" he remonstrated. "Quite impossible! We haven't the power----"

"You're wrong!" retorted Mallalieu, masterful and insistent as ever. "You have the power! D'ye think I've been a justice of the peace for twelve years without knowing what law is? You've the power to admit to bail in all charges of felony, at your discretion. So now then!"

The magistrates looked at their clerk, and the clerk smiled.

"Mr. Mallalieu's theory is correct," he said quietly. "But no magistrate is obliged to admit to bail in felonies and misdemeanours, and in practice bail is never allowed in cases where--as in this case--the charge is one of murder. Such procedure is unheard of."

"Make a precedent, then!" sneered Mallalieu. "Here!--you can have twenty thousand pounds security, if you like."

But this offer received no answer, and in five minutes more Mallalieu heard the case adjourned for a week and himself and Cotherstone committed to Norcaster Gaol in the meantime. Without a look at his fellow-prisoner he turned out of the dock and was escorted back to the private room in the Town Hall from which he had been brought.

"Hang 'em for a lot of fools!" he burst out to the superintendent, who had accompanied him. "Do they think I'm going to run away? Likely thing--on a trumped-up charge like this. Here!--how soon shall you be wanting to start for yon place?"

The superintendent, who had cherished considerable respect for Mallalieu in the past, and was much upset and very downcast about this sudden change in the Mayor's fortunes, looked at his prisoner and shook his head.

"There's a couple of cars ordered to be ready in half an hour, Mr. Mallalieu," he answered. "One for you, and one for Mr. Cotherstone."

"With armed escorts in both, I suppose!" sneered Mallalieu. "Well, look here--you've time to get me a cup of tea. Slip out and get one o' your men to nip across to the Arms for it--good, strong tea, and a slice or two of bread-and-butter. I can do with it."

He flung half a crown on the table, and the superintendent, suspecting nothing, and willing to oblige a man who had always been friendly and genial towards himself, went out of the room, with no further precautions than the turning of the key in the lock when he had once got outside the door. It never entered his head that the prisoner would try to escape, never crossed his mind that Mallalieu had any chance of escaping. He went away along the corridor to find one of his men who could be dispatched to the Highmarket Arms.

But the instant Mallalieu was left alone he started into action. He had not been Mayor of Highmarket for two years, a member of its Corporation for nearly twenty, without knowing all the ins-and-outs of that old Town Hall. And as soon as the superintendent had left him he drew from his pocket a key, went across the room to a door which stood in a corner behind a curtain, unlocked it, opened it gently, looked out, passed into a lobby without, relocked the door behind him, and in another instant was stealing quietly down a private staircase that led to an entrance into the quaint old garden at the back of the premises. One further moment of suspense and of looking round, and he was safely in that garden and behind the thick shrubs which ran along one of its high walls. Yet another and he was out of the garden, and in an old-fashioned orchard which ran, thick with trees, to the very edge of the coppices at the foot of the Shawl. Once in that orchard, screened by its close-branched, low-spreading boughs, leafless though they were at that period of the year, he paused to get his breath, and to chuckle over the success of his scheme. What a mercy, what blessing, he thought, that they had not searched him on his arrest!--that they had delayed that interesting ceremony until his committal! The omission, he knew, had been winked at--purposely--and it had left him with his precious waistcoat, his revolver, and the key that had opened his prison door.

Dusk had fallen over Highmarket before the hearing came to an end, and it was now dark. Mallalieu knew that he had little time to lose--but he also knew that his pursuers would have hard work to catch him. He had laid his plans while the last two witnesses were in the box: his detailed knowledge of the town and its immediate neighbourhood stood in good stead. Moreover, the geographical situation of the Town Hall was a great help. He had nothing to do but steal out of the orchard into the coppices, make his way cautiously through them into the deeper wood which fringed the Shawl, pass through that to the ridge at the top, and gain the moors. Once on those moors he would strike by devious way for Norcaster--he knew a safe place in the Lower Town there where he could be hidden for a month, three months, six months, without fear of discovery, and from whence he could get away by ship.

All was quiet as he passed through a gap in the orchard hedge and stole into the coppices. He kept stealthily but swiftly along through the pine and fir until he came to the wood which covered the higher part of the Shawl. The trees were much thicker there, the brakes and bushes were thicker, and the darkness was greater. He was obliged to move at a slower pace--and suddenly he heard men's voices on the lower slopes beneath him. He paused catching his breath and listening. And then, just as suddenly as he had heard the voices, he felt a hand, firm, steady, sinewy, fasten on his wrist and stay there.