Chapter XXV. No Further Evidence
 

While Mallalieu lay captive in the stronghold of Miss Pett, Cotherstone was experiencing a quite different sort of incarceration in the detention cells of Norcaster Gaol. Had he known where his partner was, and under what circumstances Mallalieu had obtained deliverance from official bolts and bars, Cotherstone would probably have laughed in his sleeve and sneered at him for a fool. He had been calling Mallalieu a fool, indeed, ever since the previous evening, when the police, conducting him to Norcaster, had told him of the Mayor's escape from the Town Hall. Nobody but an absolute fool, a consummate idiot, thought Cotherstone, would have done a thing like that. The man who flies is the man who has reason to fly--that was Cotherstone's opinion, and in his belief ninety-nine out of every hundred persons in Highmarket would share it. Mallalieu would now be set down as guilty--they would say he dared not face things, that he knew he was doomed, that his escape was the desperate act of a conscious criminal. Ass!--said Cotherstone, not without a certain amount of malicious delight: they should none of them have reason to say such things of him. He would make no attempt to fly--no, not if they left the gate of Norcaster Gaol wide open to him! It should be his particular care to have himself legally cleared--his acquittal should be as public as the proceedings which had just taken place. He went out of the dock with that resolve strong on him; he carried it away to his cell at Norcaster; he woke in the morning with it, stronger than ever. Cotherstone, instead of turning tail, was going to fight--for his own hand.

As a prisoner merely under detention, Cotherstone had privileges of which he took good care to avail himself. Four people he desired to see, and must see at once, on that first day in gaol--and he lost no time in making known his desires. One--and the most important--person was a certain solicitor in Norcaster who enjoyed a great reputation as a sharp man of affairs. Another--scarcely less important--was a barrister who resided in Norcaster, and had had it said of him for a whole generation that he had restored more criminals to society than any man of his profession then living. And the other two were his own daughter and Windle Bent. Them he must see--but the men of law first.

When the solicitor and the barrister came, Cotherstone talked to them as he had never talked to anybody in his life. He very soon let them see that he had two definite objects in sending for them: the first was to tell them in plain language that money was of no consideration in the matter of his defence; the second, that they had come there to hear him lay down the law as to what they were to do. Talk he did, and they listened--and Cotherstone had the satisfaction of seeing that they went away duly impressed with all that he had said to them. He went back to his cell from the room in which this interview had taken place congratulating himself on his ability.

"I shall be out of this, and all'll be clear, a week today!" he assured himself. "We'll see where that fool of a Mallalieu is by then! For he'll not get far, nor go hidden for thirty years, this time."

He waited with some anxiety to see his daughter, not because he must see her within the walls of a prison, but because he knew that by that time she would have learned the secrets of that past which he had kept so carefully hidden from her. Only child of his though she was, he felt that Lettie was not altogether of his sort; he had often realized that she was on a different mental plane from his own, and was also, in some respects, a little of a mystery to him. How would she take all this?--what would she say?--what effect would it have on her?--he pondered these questions uneasily while he waited for her visit.

But if Cotherstone had only known it, he need have suffered no anxiety about Lettie. It had fallen to Bent to tell her the sad news the afternoon before, and Bent had begged Brereton to go up to the house with him. Bent was upset; Brereton disliked the task, though he willingly shared in it. They need have had no anxiety, either. For Lettie listened calmly and patiently until the whole story had been told, showing neither alarm, nor indignation, nor excitement; her self-composure astonished even Bent, who thought, having been engaged to her for twelve months, that he knew her pretty well.

"I understand exactly," said Lettie, when, between them, they had told her everything, laying particular stress on her father's version of things. "It is all very annoying, of course, but then it is quite simple, isn't it? Of course, Mr. Mallalieu has been the guilty person all through, and poor father has been dragged into it. But then--all that you have told me has only to be put before the--who is it?--magistrates?--judges?--and then, of course, father will be entirely cleared, and Mr. Mallalieu will be hanged. Windle--of course we shall have to put off the wedding?"

"Oh, of course!" agreed Bent. "We can't have any weddings until all this business is cleared up."

"That'll be so much better," said Lettie. "It really was becoming an awful rush."

Brereton glanced at Bent when they left the house.

"I congratulate you on having a fiancee of a well-balanced mind, old chap!" he said. "That was--a relief!"

"Oh, Lettie's a girl of singularly calm and equable temperament," answered Bent. "She's not easily upset, and she's quick at sizing things up. And I say, Brereton, I've got to do all I can for Cotherstone, you know. What about his defence?"

"I should imagine that Cotherstone is already arranging his defence himself," said Brereton. "He struck me during that talk this morning at Tailington's as being very well able to take care of himself, Bent, and I think you'll find when you visit him that he's already fixed things. You won't perhaps see why, and I won't explain just now, but this foolish running away of Mallalieu, who, of course, is sure to be caught, is very much in Cotherstone's favour. I shall be much surprised if you don't find Cotherstone in very good spirits, and if there aren't developments in this affair within a day or two which will impress the whole neighbourhood."

Bent, visiting the prisoner in company with Lettie next day, found Brereton's prediction correct. Cotherstone, hearing from his daughter's own lips what she herself thought of the matter, and being reassured that all was well between Bent and her, became not merely confident but cheerily boastful. He would be free, and he would be cleared by that day next week--he was not sorry, he said, that at last all this had come out, for now he would be able to get rid of an incubus that had weighted him all his life.

"You're very confident, you know," remarked Bent.

"Not beyond reason," asserted Cotherstone doggedly. "You wait till tomorrow!"

"What is there tomorrow?" asked Bent.

"The inquest on Stoner is tomorrow," replied Cotherstone. "You be there--and see and hear what happens."

All of Highmarket population that could cram itself into the Coroner's court was there next day when the adjourned inquest on the clerk's death was held. Neither Bent nor Brereton nor Tallington had any notion of what line was going to be taken by Cotherstone and his advisers, but Tallington and Brereton exchanged glances when Cotherstone, in charge of two warders from Norcaster, was brought in, and when the Norcaster solicitor and the Norcaster barrister whom he had retained, shortly afterwards presented themselves.

"I begin to foresee," whispered Tallington. "Clever!--devilish clever!"

"Just so," agreed Brereton, with a sidelong nod at the crowded seats close by. "And there's somebody who's interested because it's going to be devilish clever--that fellow Pett!"

Christopher Pett was there, silk hat, black kid gloves and all, not afraid of being professionally curious. Curiosity was the order of the day: everybody present--of any intelligent perception--wanted to know what the presence of Cotherstone, one of the two men accused of the murder of Stoner, signified. But it was some little time before any curiosity was satisfied. The inquest being an adjourned one, most of the available evidence had to be taken, and as a coroner has a wide field in the calling of witnesses, there was more evidence produced before him and his jury than before the magistrates. There was Myler, of course, and old Pursey, and the sweethearting couple: there were other witnesses, railway folks, medical experts, and townspeople who could contribute some small quota of testimony. But all these were forgotten when at last Cotherstone, having been duly warned by the coroner that he need not give any evidence at all, determinedly entered the witness-box--to swear on oath that he was witness to his partner's crime.

Nothing could shake Cotherstone's evidence. He told a plain, straightforward story from first to last. He had no knowledge whatever of Stoner's having found out the secret of the Wilchester affair. He knew nothing of Stoner's having gone over to Darlington. On the Sunday he himself had gone up the moors for a quiet stroll. At the spinney overhanging Hobwick Quarry he had seen Mallalieu and Stoner, and had at once noticed that something in the shape of a quarrel was afoot. He saw Mallalieu strike heavily at Stoner with his oak stick--saw Mallalieu, in a sudden passion, kick the stick over the edge of the quarry, watched him go down into the quarry and eventually leave it. He told how he himself had gone after the stick, recovered it, taken it home, and had eventually told the police where it was. He had never spoken to Mallalieu on that Sunday--never seen him except under the circumstances just detailed.

The astute barrister who represented Cotherstone had not troubled the Coroner and his jury much by asking questions of the various witnesses. But he had quietly elicited from all the medical men the definite opinion that death had been caused by the blow. And when Cotherstone's evidence was over, the barrister insisted on recalling the two sweethearts, and he got out of them, separately (each being excluded from the court while the other gave evidence), that they had not seen Mallalieu and Cotherstone together, that Mallalieu had left the quarry some time before they saw Cotherstone, and that when Mallalieu passed them he seemed to be agitated and was muttering to himself, whereas in Cotherstone's manner they noticed nothing remarkable.

Brereton, watching the faces of the jurymen, all tradesmen of the town, serious and anxious, saw the effect which Cotherstone's evidence and the further admissions of the two sweethearts was having. And neither he nor Tallington--and certainly not Mr. Christopher Pett--was surprised when, in the gathering dusk of the afternoon, the inquest came to an end with a verdict of Wilful Murder against Anthony Mallalieu.

"Your client is doing very well," observed Tallington to the Norcaster solicitor as they foregathered in an ante-room.

"My client will be still better when he comes before your bench again," drily answered the other. "As you'll see!"

"So that's the line you're taking?" said Tallington quietly. "A good one--for him."

"Every man for himself," remarked the Norcaster practitioner. "We're not concerned with Mallalieu--we're concerned about ourselves. See you when Cotherstone's brought before your worthies next Tuesday. And--a word in your ear!--it won't be a long job, then."

Long job or short job, the Highmarket Town Hall was packed to the doors when Cotherstone, after his week's detention, was again placed in the dock. This time, he stood there alone--and he looked around him with confidence and with not a few signs that he felt a sense of coming triumph. He listened with a quiet smile while the prosecuting counsel--sent down specially from London to take charge--discussed with the magistrates the matter of Mallalieu's escape, and he showed more interest when he heard some police information as to how that escape had been effected, and that up to then not a word had been heard and no trace found of the fugitive. And after that, as the prosecuting counsel bent over to exchange a whispered word with the magistrates' clerk, Cotherstone deliberately turned, and seeking out the place where Bent and Brereton sat together, favoured them with a peculiar glance. It was the glance of a man who wished to say "I told you!--now you'll see whether I was right!"

"We're going to hear something--now!" whispered Brereton.

The prosecuting counsel straightened himself and looked at the magistrates. There was a momentary hesitation on his part; a look of expectancy on the faces of the men on the bench; a deep silence in the crowded court. The few words that came from the counsel were sharp and decisive.

"There will be no further evidence against the prisoner now in the dock, your worships," he said. "The prosecution decides to withdraw the charge."

In the buzz of excitement which followed the voice of the old chairman was scarcely audible as he glanced at Cotherstone.

"You are discharged," he said abruptly.

Cotherstone turned and left the dock. And for the second time he looked at Bent and Brereton in the same peculiar, searching way. Then, amidst a dead silence, he walked out of the court.