Chapter XXIV. STrict Business Lines
 

Mr. Christopher Pett, warned by the uplifted finger of his aunt, tip-toed into the living-room, and setting down his small travelling bag on the table proceeded to divest himself of a thick overcoat, a warm muffler, woollen gloves, and a silk hat. And Miss Pett, having closed the outer and inner doors, came in and glanced inquiringly at him.

"Which way did you come, this time?" she inquired.

"High Gill," replied Christopher. "Got an afternoon express that stopped there. Jolly cold it was crossing those moors of yours, too, I can tell you!--I can do with a drop of something. I say--is there anything afoot about here?--anything going on?"

"Why?" asked Miss Pett, producing the whisky and the lemons. "And how do you mean?"

Christopher pulled an easy chair to the fire and stretched his hands to the blaze.

"Up there, on the moor," he answered. "There's fellows going about with lights--lanterns, I should say. I didn't see 'em close at hand--there were several of 'em crossing about--like fire-flies--as if the chaps who carried 'em were searching for something."

Miss Pett set the decanter and the materials for toddy on the table at her nephew's side, and took a covered plate from the cupboard in the corner.

"Them's potted meat sandwiches," she said. "Very toothsome you'll find 'em--I didn't prepare much, for I knew you'd get your dinner on the train. Yes, well, there is something afoot--they are searching. Not for something, though, but for somebody. Mallalieu!"

Christopher, his mouth full of sandwiches, and his hand laid on the decanter, lifted a face full of new and alert interest.

"The Mayor!" he exclaimed.

"Quite so," assented Miss Pett. "Anthony Mallalieu, Esquire, Mayor of Highmarket. They want him, does the police--bad!"

Christopher still remained transfixed. The decanter was already tilted in his hand, but he tilted it no further; the sandwich hung bulging in his cheek.

"Good Lord!" he said. "Not for----" he paused, nodding his head towards the front of the cottage where the wood lay "--not for--that? They ain't suspicioning him?"

"No, but for killing his clerk, who'd found something out," replied Miss Pett. "The clerk was killed Sunday; they took up Mallalieu and his partner today, and tried 'em, and Mallalieu slipped the police somehow, after the case was adjourned, and escaped. And--he's here!"

Christopher had begun to pour the whisky into his glass. In his astonishment he rattled the decanter against the rim.

"What!" he exclaimed. "Here? In this cottage?"

"In there," answered Miss Pett. "In Kitely's room. Safe and sound. There's no danger. He'll not wake. I mixed him a glass of toddy before he went to bed, and neither earthquakes nor fire-alarms 'ull wake him before nine o'clock tomorrow morning."

"Whew!" said Christopher. "Um! it's a dangerous game--it's harbouring, you know. However, they'd suspect that he'd come here. Whatever made him come here?"

"I made him come here," replied Miss Pett. "I caught him in the wood outside there, as I was coming back from the Town Hall, so I made him come in. It'll pay very well, Chris."

Mr. Pett, who was lifting his glass to his lips, arrested it in mid-air, winked over its rim at his aunt, and smiled knowingly.

"You're a good hand at business, I must say, old lady!" he remarked admiringly. "Of course, of course, if you're doing a bit of business out of it----"

"That'll come tomorrow," said Miss Pett, seating herself at the table and glancing at her nephew's bag. "We'll do our own business tonight. Well, how have you come on?"

Christopher munched and drank for a minute or two. Then he nodded, with much satisfaction in his manner.

"Very well," he answered. "I got what I consider a very good price. Sold the whole lot to another Brixton property-owner, got paid, and have brought you the money. All of it--ain't even taken my costs, my expenses, and my commission out of it--yet."

"How much did you sell for?" asked Miss Pett.

Christopher pulled his bag to his side and took a bundle of red-taped documents from it.

"You ought to think yourself jolly lucky," he said, wagging his head admonitorily at his aunt. "I see a lot of the state of the property market, and I can assure you I did uncommonly well for you. I shouldn't have got what I did if it had been sold by auction. But the man I sold to was a bit keen, 'cause he's already got adjacent property, and he gave rather more than he would ha' done in other circumstances. I got," he continued, consulting the topmost of his papers, "I got, in round figures, three thousand four hundred--to be exact, three thousand four hundred, seventeen, five, eleven."

"Where's the money?" demanded Miss Pett.

"It's here," answered Christopher, tapping his breast. "In my pocket-book. Notes, big and little--so that we can settle up."

Miss Pett stretched out her hand.

"Hand it over!" she said.

Christopher gave his aunt a sidelong glance.

"Hadn't we better reckon up my costs and commission first?" he suggested. "Here's an account of the costs--the commission, of course, was to be settled between you and me."

"We'll settle all that when you've handed the money over," said Miss Pett. "I haven't counted it yet."

There was a certain unwillingness in Christopher Pett's manner as he slowly produced a stout pocket-book and took from it a thick wad of bank-notes. He pushed this across to his aunt, with a tiny heap of silver and copper.

"Well, I'm trusting to you, you know," he said a little doubtfully. "Don't forget that I've done well for you."

Miss Pett made no answer. She had taken a pair of spectacles from her pocket, and with these perched on the bridge of her sharp nose she proceeded to count the notes, while her nephew alternately sipped at his toddy and stroked his chin, meanwhile eyeing his relative's proceedings with somewhat rueful looks.

"Three thousand, four hundred and seventeen pounds, five shillings and elevenpence," and Miss Pett calmly. "And them costs, now, and the expenses--how much do they come to, Chris?"

"Sixty-one, two, nine," answered Christopher, passing one of his papers across the table with alacrity. "You'll find it quite right--I did it as cheap as possible for you."

Miss Pett set her elbow on her heap of bank-notes while she examined the statement. That done, she looked over the tops of her spectacles at the expectant Christopher.

"Well, about that commission," she said. "Of course, you know, Chris, you oughtn't to charge me what you'd charge other folks. You ought to do it very reasonable indeed for me. What were you thinking of, now?"

"I got the top price," remarked Christopher reflectively. "I got you quite four hundred more than the market price. How would--how would five per cent. be, now?"

Miss Pett threw up the gay turban with a toss of surprise.

"Five per cent!" she ejaculated. "Christopher Pett!--whatever are you talking about? Why, that 'ud be a hundred and seventy pound! Eh, dear!--nothing of the sort--it 'ud be as good as robbery. I'm astonished at you."

"Well, how much, then?" growled Christopher. "Hang it all!--don't be close with your own nephew."

"I'll give you a hundred pounds--to include the costs," said Miss Pett firmly. "Not a penny more--but," she added, bending forward and nodding her head towards that half of the cottage wherein Mallalieu slumbered so heavily, "I'll give you something to boot--an opportunity of feathering your nest out of--him!"

Christopher's face, which had clouded heavily, lightened somewhat at this, and he too glanced at the door.

"Will it be worth it?" he asked doubtfully. "What is there to be got out of him if he's flying from justice? He'll carry naught--and he can't get at anything that he has, either."

Miss Pett gave vent to a queer, dry chuckle; the sound of her laughter always made her nephew think of the clicking of machinery that badly wanted oiling.

"He's heaps o' money on him!" she whispered. "After he dropped off tonight I went through his pockets. We've only got to keep a tight hold on him to get as much as ever we like! So--put your hundred in your pocket, and we'll see about the other affair tomorrow."

"Oh, well, of course, in that case!" said Christopher. He picked up the banknote which his aunt pushed towards him and slipped it into his purse. "We shall have to play on his fears a bit, you know," he remarked.

"I think we shall be equal to it--between us," answered Miss Pett drily. "Them big, flabby men's easy frightened."

Mallalieu was certainly frightened when he woke suddenly next morning to find Miss Pett standing at the side of his bed. He glared at her for one instant of wild alarm and started up on his pillows. Miss Pett laid one of her claw-like hands on his shoulder.

"Don't alarm yourself, mister," she said. "All's safe, and here's something that'll do you good--a cup of nice hot coffee--real Mocha, to which the late Kitely was partial--with a drop o'rum in it. Drink it--and you shall have your breakfast in half an hour. It's past nine o'clock."

"I must have slept very sound," said Mallalieu, following his gaoler's orders. "You say all's safe? Naught heard or seen?"

"All's safe, all's serene," replied Miss Pett. "And you're in luck's way, for there's my nephew Christopher arrived from London, to help me about settling my affairs and removing my effects from this place, and he's a lawyer and'll give you good advice."

Mallalieu growled a little. He had seen Mr. Christopher Pett and he was inclined to be doubtful of him.

"Is he to be trusted?" he muttered. "I expect he'll have to be squared, too!"

"Not beyond reason," replied Miss Pett. "We're not unreasonable people, our family. He's a very sensible young man, is Christopher. The late Kitely had a very strong opinion of his abilities."

Mallalieu had no doubt of Mr. Christopher Pett's abilities in a certain direction after he had exchanged a few questions and answers with that young gentleman. For Christopher was shrewd, sharp, practical and judicial.

"It's a very dangerous and--you'll excuse plain speaking under the circumstances, sir--very foolish thing that you've done, Mr. Mallalieu," he said, as he and the prisoner sat closeted together in the still shuttered and curtained parlour-bedroom. "The mere fact of your making your escape, sir, is what some would consider a proof of guilt--it is indeed! And of course my aunt--and myself, in my small way--we're running great risks, Mr. Mallalieu--we really are--great risks!"

"Now then, you'll not lose by me," said Mallalieu. "I'm not a man of straw."

"All very well, sir," replied Christopher, "but even if you were a millionaire and recompensed us on what I may term a princely scale--not that we shall expect it, Mr. Mallalieu--the risks would be extraordinary--ahem! I mean will be extraordinary. For you see, Mr. Mallalieu, there's two or three things that's dead certain. To start with, sir, it's absolutely impossible for you to get away from here by yourself--you can't do it!"

"Why not?" growled Mallalieu. "I can get away at nightfall."

"No, sir," affirmed Christopher stoutly. "I saw the condition of the moors last night. Patrolled, Mr. Mallalieu, patrolled! By men with lights. That patrolling, sir, will go on for many a night. Make up your mind, Mr. Mallalieu, that if you set foot out of this house, you'll see the inside of Norcaster Gaol before two hours is over!"

"What do you advise, then?" demanded Mallalieu. "Here!--I'm fairly in for it, so I'll tell you what my notion was. If I can once get to a certain part of Norcaster, I'm safe. I can get away to the Continent from there."

"Then, sir," replied Christopher, "the thing is to devise a plan by which you can be conveyed to Norcaster without suspicion. That'll have to be arranged between me and my aunt--hence our risks on your behalf."

"Your aunt said she'd a plan," remarked Mallalieu.

"Not quite matured, sir," said Christopher. "It needs a little reflection and trimming, as it were. Now what I advise, Mr. Mallalieu, is this--you keep snug here, with my aunt as sentinel--she assures me that even if the police--don't be frightened, sir!--did come here, she could hide you quite safely before ever she opened the door to them. As for me, I'll go, casual-like, into the town, and do a bit of quiet looking and listening. I shall be able to find out how the land lies, sir--and when I return I'll report to you, and the three of us will put our heads together."

Leaving the captive in charge of Miss Pett, Christopher, having brushed his silk hat and his overcoat and fitted on a pair of black kid gloves, strolled solemnly into Highmarket. He was known to a few people there, and he took good care to let those of his acquaintance who met him hear that he had come down to arrange his aunt's affairs, and to help in the removal of the household goods bequeathed to her by the deceased Kitely. In proof of this he called in at the furniture remover's, to get an estimate of the cost of removal to Norcaster Docks--thence, said Christopher, the furniture could be taken by sea to London, where Miss Pett intended to reside in future. At the furniture remover's, and in such other shops as he visited, and in the bar-parlour of the Highmarket Arms, where he stayed an hour or so, gossiping with the loungers, and sipping a glass or two of dry sherry, Christopher picked up a great deal of information. And at noon he returned to the cottage, having learned that the police and everybody in Highmarket firmly believed that Mallalieu had got clear and clean away the night before, and was already far beyond pursuit. The police theory was that there had been collusion, and that immediately on his escape he had been whirled off by some person to whose identity there was as yet no clue.

But Christopher Pett told a very different story to Mallalieu. The moors, he said, were being patrolled night and day: it was believed the fugitive was in hiding in one of the old quarries. Every road and entrance to Norcaster, and to all the adjacent towns and stations, was watched and guarded. There was no hope for Mallalieu but in the kindness and contrivance of the aunt and the nephew, and Mallalieu recognized the inevitable and was obliged to yield himself to their tender mercies.