Chapter XXVIII. Pages from the Past

Before the solicitor and his companions could seat themselves at the table whereat the former's preliminary explanation had been made, Mr. Wraythwaite got up and motioned Avice to follow his example.

"Carfax," he said, "there's no need for me to listen to all that you've got to tell Mr. Brereton--I know it already. And I don't think it will particularly interest Miss Harborough at the moment--she'll hear plenty about it later on. She and I will leave you--make your explanations and your arrangements, and we'll join you later on."

He led the way to the door, beckoning Avice to accompany him. But Avice paused and turned to Brereton.

"You feel sure that it is all right now about my father?" she said. "You feel certain? If you do----"

"Yes--absolutely," answered Brereton, who knew what her question meant. "And--we will let him know."

"He knows!" exclaimed Carfax. "That is, he knows that Mr. Wraythwaite is here, and that everything's all right. Run away, my dear young lady, and be quite happy--Mr. Wraythwaite will tell you everything you want to know. And now, my dear sir," he continued, as he shut the door on Wraythwaite and Avice and bustled back to the table, "there are things that you want to know, and that you are going to know--from me and from these two gentlemen. Mr. Stobb--Mr. Leykin. Both ex-Scotland Yard men, and now in business for themselves as private inquiry agents. Smart fellows--though I say it to their faces."

"I gather from that that you have been doing some private inquiry work, then?" said Brereton. "In connexion with what, now?"

"Let us proceed in order," answered Carfax, taking a seat at the head of the table and putting his fingers together in a judicial attitude. "I will open the case. When Wraythwaite--a fine fellow, who, between ourselves, is going to do great things for Harborough and his daughter--when Wraythwaite, I say, heard of what had happened down here, he was naturally much upset. His first instinct was to rush to Highmarket at once and tell everything. However, instead of doing that, he very wisely came to me. Having heard all that he had to tell, I advised him, as it was absolutely certain that no harm could come to Harborough in the end, to let matters rest for the time being, until we had put the finishing touches to his own affair. He, however, insisted on sending you that money--which was done: nothing else would satisfy him. But now arose a deeply interesting phase of the whole affair--which has been up to now kept secret between Wraythwaite, myself, and Messrs. Stobb and Leykin there. To it I now invite your attention."

Mr. Carfax here pulled out a memorandum book from his pocket, and having fitted on his spectacles glanced at a page or two within it.

"Now," he presently continued, "Wraythwaite being naturally deeply interested in the Kitely case, he procured the local newspapers--Norcaster and Highmarket papers, you know--so that he could read all about it. There was in those papers a full report of the first proceedings before the magistrates, and Wraythwaite was much struck by your examination of the woman Miss Pett. In fact, he was so much struck by your questions and her replies that he brought the papers to me, and we read them together. And, although we knew well enough that we should eventually have no difficulty whatever in proving an alibi in Harborough's behalf, we decided that in his interest we would make a few guarded but strict inquiries into Miss Pett's antecedents."

Brereton started. Miss Pett! Ah!--he had had ideas respecting Miss Pett at the beginning of things, but other matters had cropped up, and affairs had moved and developed so rapidly that he had almost forgotten her.

"That makes you think," continued Carfax, with a smile. "Just so!--and what took place at that magistrates' sitting made Wraythwaite and myself think. And, as I say, we employed Stobb and Leykin, men of great experience, to--just find out a little about Miss Pett. Of course, Miss Pett herself had given us something to go on. She had told you some particulars of her career. She had been housekeeper to a Major Stilman, at Kandahar Cottage, Woking. She had occupied posts at two London hotels. So--Stobb went to Woking, and Leykin devoted himself to the London part of the business.

"And I think, Stobb," concluded the solicitor, turning to one of the inquiry agents, "I think you'd better tell Mr. Brereton what you found out at Woking, and then Leykin can tell us what he brought to light elsewhere."

Stobb, a big, cheery-faced man, who looked like a highly respectable publican, turned to Brereton with a smile.

"It was a very easy job, sir," he said. "I found out all about the lady and her connexion with Woking in a very few hours. There are plenty of folk at Woking who remember Miss Pett--she gave you the mere facts of her residence there correctly enough. But--naturally--she didn't tell you more than the mere facts, the surface, as it were. Now, I got at everything. Miss Pett was housekeeper at Woking to a Major Stilman, a retired officer of an infantry regiment. All the time she was with him--some considerable period--he was more or less of an invalid, and he was well known to suffer terribly from some form of neuralgia. He got drugs to alleviate the pain of that neuralgia from every chemist in the place, one time or another. And one day, Major Stilman was found dead in bed, with some of these drugs by his bedside. Of course an inquest was held, and, equally of course, the evidence of doctors and chemists being what it was, a verdict of death from misadventure--overdose of the stuff, you know--was returned. Against Miss Pett there appears to have been no suspicion in Woking at that time--and for the matter of that," concluded Mr. Stobb drily, "I don't know that there is now."

"You have some yourself?" suggested Brereton.

"I went into things further," answered Mr. Stobb, with the ghost of a wink. "I found out how things were left--by Stilman. Stilman had nothing but his pension, and a capital sum of about two thousand pounds. He left that two thousand, and the furniture of his house, to Miss Pett. The will had been executed about a twelvemonth before Stilman died. It was proved as quickly as could be after his death, and of course Miss Pett got her legacy. She sold the furniture--and left the neighbourhood."

"What is your theory?" asked Brereton.

Mr. Stobb nodded across the table at Carfax.

"Not my business to say what my theories are, Mr. Brereton," he answered. "All I had to do was to find out facts, and report them to Mr. Carfax and Mr. Wraythwaite."

"All the same," said Brereton quietly, "you think it quite possible that Miss Pett, knowing that Stilman took these strong doses, and having a pecuniary motive, gave him a still stronger one? Come, now!"

Stobb smiled, rubbed his chin and looked at Carfax. And Carfax pointed to Stobb's partner, a very quiet, observant man who had listened with a sly expression on his face.

"Your turn, Leykin," he said. "Tell the result of your inquiries."

Leykin was one of those men who possess soft voices and slow speech. Invited to play his part, he looked at Brereton as if he were half apologizing for anything he had to say.

"Well," he said, "of course, sir, what Miss Pett told you about her posts at two London hotels was quite right. She had been storekeeper at one, and linen-keeper at another--before she went to Major Stilman. There was nothing against her at either of those places. But of course I wanted to know more about her than that. Now she said in answer to you that before she went to the first of those hotels she had lived at home with her father, a Sussex farmer. So she had--but it was a long time before. She had spent ten years in India between leaving home and going to the Royal Belvedere. She went out to India as a nurse in an officer's family. And while she was in India she was charged with strangling a fellow-servant--a Eurasian girl who had excited her jealousy."

Brereton started again at that, and he turned a sharp glance on Carfax, who nodded emphatically and signed to Leykin to proceed.

"I have the report of that affair in my pocket," continued Leykin, more softly and slowly than ever. "It's worth reading, Mr. Brereton, and perhaps you'll amuse yourself with it sometime. But I can give you the gist of it in a few words. Pett was evidently in love with her master's orderly. He wasn't in love with her. She became madly jealous of this Eurasian girl, who was under-nurse. The Eurasian girl was found near the house one night with a cord tightly twisted round her neck--dead, of course. There were no other signs of violence, but some gold ornaments which the girl wore had disappeared. Pett was tried--and she was discharged, for she set up an alibi--of a sort that wouldn't have satisfied me," remarked Leykin in an aside. "But there was a queer bit of evidence given which you may think of use now. One of the witnesses said that Pett had been much interested in reading some book about the methods of the Thugs, and had talked in the servants' quarters of how they strangled their victims with shawls of the finest silk. Now this Eurasian girl had been strangled with a silk handkerchief--and if that handkerchief could only have been traced to Pett, she'd have been found guilty. But, as I said, she was found not guilty--and she left her place at once and evidently returned to England. That's all, sir."

"Stobb has a matter that might be mentioned," said Carfax, glancing at the other inquiry agent.

"Well, it's not much, Mr. Brereton," said Stobb. "It's merely that we've ascertained that Kitely had left all he had to this woman, and that----"

"I know that," interrupted Brereton. "She made no concealment of it. Or, rather, her nephew, acting for her, didn't."

"Just so," remarked Stobb drily. "But did you know that the nephew had already proved the will, and sold the property? No?--well, he has! Not much time lost, you see, after the old man's death, sir. In fact, it's been done about as quickly as it well could be done. And of course Miss Pett will have received her legacy--which means that by this time she'll have got all that Kitely had to leave."

Brereton turned to the solicitor, who, during the recital of facts by the two inquiry agents, had maintained his judicial attitude, as if he were on the bench and listening to the opening statements of counsel.

"Are you suggesting, all of you that you think Miss Pett murdered Kitely?" he asked. "I should like a direct answer to that question."

"My dear sir!" exclaimed Carfax. "What does it look like? You've heard the woman's record! The probability is that she did murder that Eurasian, girl--that she took advantage of Stilman's use of drugs to finish him off. She certainly benefited by Stilman's death--and she's without doubt benefited by Kitely's. I repeat--what does it look like?"

"What do you propose to do?" asked Brereton.

The inquiry agents glanced at each other and then at Carfax. And Carfax slowly took off his spectacles with a flourish, and looked more judicial than ever as he answered the young barrister's question.

"I will tell you what I propose to do," he replied. "I propose to take these two men over to Highmarket this evening and to let them tell the Highmarket police all they have just told you!"