Chapter XXIII. Comfortable Captivity
 

The tightening of that sinewy grip on Mallalieu's wrist so startled him that it was only by a great effort that he restrained himself from crying out and from breaking into one of his fits of trembling. This sudden arrest was all the more disturbing to his mental composure because, for the moment, he could not see to whom the hand belonged. But as he twisted round he became aware of a tall, thin shape at his elbow; the next instant a whisper stole to his ear.

"H'sh! Be careful!--there's men down there on the path!--they're very like after you," said the voice. "Wait here a minute!"

"Who are you?" demanded Mallalieu hoarsely. He was endeavouring to free his wrist, but the steel-like fingers clung. "Let go my hand!" he said. "D'ye hear?--let it go!"

"Wait!" said the voice. "It's for your own good. It's me--Miss Pett. I saw you--against that patch of light between the trees there--I knew your big figure. You've got away, of course. Well, you'll not get much further if you don't trust to me. Wait till we hear which way them fellows go."

Mallalieu resigned himself. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the gloom of the wood, he made out that Miss Pett was standing just within an opening in the trees; presently, as the voices beneath them became fainter, she drew him into it.

"This way!" she whispered. "Come close behind me--the house is close by."

"No!" protested Mallalieu angrily. "None of your houses! Here, I want to be on the moors. What do you want--to keep your tongue still?"

Miss Pett paused and edged her thin figure close to Mallalieu's bulky one.

"It'll not be a question of my tongue if you once go out o' this wood," she said. "They'll search those moors first thing. Don't be a fool!--it'll be known all over the town by now! Come with me and I'll put you where all the police in the county can't find you. But of course, do as you like--only, I'm warning you. You haven't a cat's chance if you set foot on that moor. Lord bless you, man!--don't they know that there's only two places you could make for--Norcaster and Hexendale? Is there any way to either of 'em except across the moors? Come on, now--be sensible."

"Go on, then!" growled Mallalieu. Wholly suspicious by nature, he was wondering why this she-dragon, as he had so often called her, should be at all desirous of sheltering him. Already he suspected her of some design, some trick--and in the darkness he clapped his hand on the hip-pocket in which he had placed his revolver. That was safe enough--and again he thanked his stars that the police had not searched him. But however well he might be armed, he was for the time being in Miss Pett's power--he knew very well that if he tried to slip away Miss Pett had only to utter one shrill cry to attract attention. And so, much as he desired the freedom of the moors, he allowed himself to be taken captive by this gaoler who promised eventual liberty.

Miss Pett waited in the thickness of the trees until the voices at the foot of the Shawl became faint and far off; she herself knew well enough that they were not the voices of men who were searching for Mallalieu, but of country folk who had been into the town and were now returning home by the lower path in the wood. But it suited her purposes to create a spirit of impending danger in the Mayor, and so she kept him there, her hand still on his arm, until the last sound died away. And while she thus held him, Mallalieu, who had often observed Miss Pett in her peregrinations through the Market Place, and had been accustomed to speaking of her as a thread-paper, or as Mother Skin-and-Bones, because of her phenomenal thinness, wondered how it was that a woman of such extraordinary attenuation should possess such powerful fingers--her grip on his wrist was like that of a vice. And somehow, in a fashion for which he could not account, especially in the disturbed and anxious state of his mind, he became aware that here in this strange woman was some mental force which was superior to and was already dominating his own, and for a moment he was tempted to shake the steel-like fingers off and make a dash for the moorlands.

But Miss Pett presently moved forward, holding Mallalieu as a nurse might hold an unwilling child. She led him cautiously through the trees, which there became thicker, she piloted him carefully down a path, and into a shrubbery--she drew him through a gap in a hedgerow, and Mallalieu knew then that they were in the kitchen garden at the rear of old Kitely's cottage. Quietly and stealthily, moving herself as if her feet were shod with velvet, Miss Pett made her way with her captive to the door; Mallalieu heard the rasping of a key in a lock, the lifting of a latch; then he was gently but firmly pushed into darkness. Behind him the door closed--a bolt was shot home.

"This way!" whispered Miss Pett. She drew him after her along what he felt to be a passage, twisted him to the left through another doorway, and then, for the first time since she had assumed charge of him, released his wrist. "Wait!" she said. "We'll have a light presently."

Mallalieu stood where she had placed him, impatient of everything, but feeling powerless to move. He heard Miss Pett move about; he heard the drawing to and barring of shutters, the swish of curtains being pulled together; then the spurt and glare of a match--in its feeble flame he saw Miss Pett's queer countenance, framed in an odd-shaped, old-fashioned poke bonnet, bending towards a lamp. In the gradually increasing light of that lamp Mallalieu looked anxiously around him.

He was in a little room which was half-parlour, half bed-room. There was a camp bed in one corner; there was an ancient knee-hole writing desk under the window across which the big curtains had been drawn; there were a couple of easy-chairs on either side of the hearth. There were books and papers on a shelf; there were pictures and cartoons on the walls. Mallalieu took a hasty glance at those unusual ornaments and hated them: they were pictures of famous judges in their robes, and of great criminal counsel in their wigs--and over the chimney-piece, framed in black wood, was an old broad-sheet, printed in big, queer-shaped letters: Mallalieu's hasty glance caught the staring headline--Dying Speech and Confession of the Famous Murderer....

"This was Kitely's snug," remarked Miss Pett calmly, as she turned up the lamp to the full. "He slept in that bed, studied at that desk, and smoked his pipe in that chair. He called it his sanctum-something-or-other--I don't know no Latin. But it's a nice room, and it's comfortable, or will be when I put a fire in that grate, and it'll do very well for you until you can move. Sit you down--would you like a drop of good whisky, now?"

Mallalieu sat down and stared his hardest at Miss Pett. He felt himself becoming more confused and puzzled than ever.

"Look here, missis!" he said suddenly. "Let's get a clear idea about things. You say you can keep me safe here until I can get away. How do you know I shall be safe?"

"Because I'll take good care that you are," answered Miss Pett. "There's nobody can get into this house without my permission, and before I let anybody in, no matter with what warrants or such-like they carried, I'd see that you were out of it before they crossed the threshold. I'm no fool, I can tell you, Mr. Mallalieu, and if you trust me----"

"I've no choice, so it seems," remarked Mallalieu, grimly. "You've got me! And now, how much are you reckoning to get out of me--what?"

"No performance, no pay!" said Miss Pett. "Wait till I've managed things for you. I know how to get you safely away from here--leave it to me, and I'll have you put down in any part of Norcaster you like, without anybody knowing. And if you like to make me a little present then----"

"You're certain?" demanded Mallalieu, still suspicious, but glad to welcome even a ray of hope. "You know what you're talking about?"

"I never talk idle stuff," retorted Miss Pett. "I'm telling you what I know."

"All right, then," said Mallalieu. "You do your part, and I'll do mine when it comes to it--you'll not find me ungenerous, missis. And I will have that drop of whisky you talked about."

Miss Pett went away, leaving Mallalieu to stare about him and to meditate on this curious change in his fortunes. Well, after all, it was better to be safe and snug under this queer old woman's charge than to be locked up in Norcaster Gaol, or to be hunted about on the bleak moors and possibly to go without food or drink. And his thoughts began to assume a more cheerful complexion when Miss Pett presently brought him a stiff glass of undeniably good liquor, and proceeded to light a fire in his prison: he even melted so much as to offer her some thanks.

"I'm sure I'm much obliged to you, missis," he said, with an attempt at graciousness. "I'll not forget you when it comes to settling up. But I should feel a good deal easier in my mind if I knew two things. First of all--you know, of course, I've got away from yon lot down yonder, else I shouldn't ha' been where you found me. But--they'll raise the hue-and-cry, missis! Now supposing they come here?"

Miss Pett lifted her queer face from the hearth, where she had been blowing the sticks into a blaze.

"There's such a thing as chance," she observed. "To start with, how much chance is there that they'd ever think of coming here? Next to none! They'd never suspect me of harbouring you. There is a chance that when they look through these woods--as they will--they'll ask if I've seen aught of you--well, you can leave the answer to me."

"They might want to search," suggested Mallalieu.

"Not likely!" answered Miss Pett, with a shake of the poke bonnet. "But even if they did, I'd take good care they didn't find you!"

"Well--and what about getting me away?" asked Mallalieu. "How's that to be done?"

"I'll tell you that tomorrow," replied Miss Pett. "You make yourself easy--I'll see you're all right. And now I'll go and cook you a nice chop, for no doubt you'll do with something after all the stuff you had to hear in the court."

"You were there, then?" asked Mallalieu. "Lot o' stuff and nonsense! A sensible woman like you----"

"A sensible woman like me only believes what she can prove," answered Miss Pett.

She went away and shut the door, and Mallalieu, left to himself, took another heartening pull at his glass and proceeded to re-inspect his quarters. The fire was blazing up: the room was warm and comfortable; certainly he was fortunate. But he assured himself that the window was properly shuttered, barred, and fully covered by the thick curtain, and he stood by it for a moment listening intently for any sound of movement without. No sound came, not even the wail of a somewhat strong wind which he knew to be sweeping through the pine trees, and he came to the conclusion that the old stone walls were almost sound-proof and that if he and Miss Pett conversed in ordinary tones no eavesdroppers outside the cottage could hear them. And presently he caught a sound within the cottage--the sound of the sizzling of chops on a gridiron, and with it came the pleasant and grateful smell of cooking meat, and Mallalieu decided that he was hungry.

To a man fixed as Mallalieu was at that time the evening which followed was by no means unpleasant. Miss Pett served him as nice a little supper as his own housekeeper would have given him; later on she favoured him with her company. They talked of anything but the events of the day, and Mallalieu began to think that the queer-looking woman was a remarkably shrewd and intelligent person. There was but one drawback to his captivity--Miss Pett would not let him smoke. Cigars, she said, might be smelt outside the cottage, and nobody would credit her with the consumption of such gentleman-like luxuries.

"And if I were you," she said, at the end of an interesting conversation which had covered a variety of subjects, "I should try to get a good night's rest. I'll mix you a good glass of toddy such as the late Kitely always let me mix for his nightcap, and then I'll leave you. The bed's aired, there's plenty of clothing on it, all's safe, and you can sleep as if you were a baby in a cradle, for I always sleep like a dog, with one ear and an eye open, and I'll take good care naught disturbs you, so there!"

Mallalieu drank the steaming glass of spirits and water which Miss Pett presently brought him, and took her advice about going to bed. Without ever knowing anything about it he fell into such a slumber as he had never known in his life before. It was indeed so sound that he never heard Miss Pett steal into his room, was not aware that she carefully withdrew the precious waistcoat which, through a convenient hole in the wall, she had watched him deposit under the rest of his garments on the chair at his side, never knew that she carried it away into the living-room on the other side of the cottage. For the strong flavour of the lemon and the sweetness of the sugar which Miss Pett had put into the hot toddy had utterly obscured the very slight taste of something else which she had put in--something which was much stronger than the generous dose of whisky, and was calculated to plunge Mallalieu into a stupor from which not even an earthquake could have roused him.

Miss Pett examined the waistcoat at her leisure. Her thin fingers went through every pocket and every paper, through the bank-notes, the scrip, the shares, the securities. She put everything back in its place, after a careful reckoning and estimation of the whole. And Mallalieu was as deeply plunged in his slumbers as ever when she went back into his room with her shaded light and her catlike tread, and she replaced the garment exactly where she found it, and went out and shut the door as lightly as a butterfly folds its wings.

It was then eleven o'clock at night, and Miss Pett, instead of retiring to her bed, sat down by the living-room fire and waited. The poke bonnet had been replaced by the gay turban, and under its gold and scarlet her strange, skeleton-like face gleamed like old ivory as she sat there with the firelight playing on it. And so immobile was she, sitting with her sinewy skin-and-bone arms lying folded over her silk apron, that she might have been taken for an image rather than for a living woman.

But as the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece neared midnight, Miss Pett suddenly moved. Her sharp ears caught a scratching sound on the shutter outside the window. And noiselessly she moved down the passage, and noiselessly unbarred the front door, and just as noiselessly closed it again behind the man who slipped in--Christopher, her nephew.