The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXIX. Without Thought of Consequence
Everything was very quiet in the house where Mallalieu lay wide-awake and watchful. It seemed to him that he had never known it so quiet before. It was quiet at all times, both day and night, for Miss Pett had a habit of going about like a cat, and Christopher was decidedly of the soft-footed order, and stepped from one room to another as if he were perpetually afraid of waking somebody or trusting his own weight on his own toes. But on this particular night the silence seemed to be unusual--and it was all the deeper because no sound, not even the faint sighing of the wind in the firs and pines outside came to break it. And Mallalieu's nerves, which had gradually become sharpened and irritated by his recent adventures and his close confinement, became still more irritable, still more set on edge, and it was with difficulty that he forced himself to lie still and to listen. Moreover, he was feeling the want of the stuff which had soothed him into such sound slumber every night since he had been taken in charge by Miss Pett, and he knew very well that though he had flung it away his whole system was crying out for the lack of it.
What were those two devils after, he wondered as he lay there in the darkness? No good--that was certain. Now that he came to reflect upon it their conduct during the afternoon and evening had not been of a reassuring sort. Christopher had kept entirely away from him; he had not seen Christopher at all since the discussion of the afternoon, which Miss Pett had terminated so abruptly. He had seen Miss Pett twice or thrice--Miss Pett's attitude on each occasion had been that of injured innocence. She had brought him his tea in silence, his supper with no more than a word. It was a nice supper--she set it before him with an expression which seemed to say that however badly she herself was treated, she would do her duty by others. And Mallalieu, seeing that expression, had not been able to refrain from one of his sneering remarks.
"Think yourself very badly done to, don't you, missis!" he had exclaimed with a laugh. "Think I'm a mean 'un, what?"
"I express no opinion, Mr. Mallalieu," replied Miss Pett, frigidly and patiently. "I think it better for people to reflect. A night's reflection," she continued as she made for the door, "oft brings wisdom, even to them as doesn't usually cultivate it."
Mallalieu had no objection to the cultivation of wisdom--for his own benefit, and he was striving to produce something from the process as he lay there, waiting. But he said to himself that it was easy enough to be wise after the event--and for him the event had happened. He was in the power of these two, whom he had long since recognized as an unscrupulous woman and a shifty man. They had nothing to do but hand him over to the police if they liked: for anything he knew, Chris Pett might already have played false and told the police of affairs at the cottage. And yet on deeper reflection, he did not think that possible--for it was evident that aunt and nephew were after all they could get, and they would get nothing from the police authorities, while they might get a good deal from him. But--what did they expect to get from him? He had been a little perplexed by their attitude when he asked them if they expected him to carry a lot of money on him--a fugitive. Was it possible--the thought came to him like a thunderclap in the darkness--that they knew, or had some idea, of what he really had on him? That Miss Pett had drugged him every night he now felt sure--well, then, in that case how did he know that she hadn't entered his room and searched his belongings, and especially the precious waistcoat?
Mallalieu had deposited that waistcoat in the same place every night--on a chair which stood at the head of his bed. He had laid it folded on the chair, had deposited his other garments in layers upon it, had set his candlestick and a box of matches on top of all. And everything had always been there, just as he had placed things, every morning when he opened his eyes. But--he had come to know Miss Pett's stealthiness by that time, and ...
He put out a hand now and fingered the pile of garments which lay, neatly folded, within a few inches of his head. It was all right, then, of course, and his hand drew back--to the revolver, separated from his cheek by no more than the thickness of the pillow. The touch of that revolver made him begin speculating afresh. If Miss Pett or Christopher had meddled with the waistcoat, the revolver, too, might have been meddled with. Since he had entered the cottage, he had never examined either waistcoat or revolver. Supposing the charges had been drawn?--supposing he was defenceless, if a pinch came? He began to sweat with fear at the mere thought, and in the darkness he fumbled with the revolver in an effort to discover whether it was still loaded. And just then came a sound--and Mallalieu grew chill with suspense.
It was a very small sound--so small that it might have been no more than that caused by the scratch of the tiniest mouse in the wainscot. But in that intense silence it was easily heard--and with it came the faint glimmering of a light. The light widened--there was a little further sound--and Mallalieu, peeping at things through his eyelashes became aware that the door was open, that a tall, spare figure was outlined between the bed and the light without. And in that light, outside the door, well behind the thin form of Miss Pett, he saw Christopher Pett's sharp face and the glint of his beady eyes.
Mallalieu was sharp enough of thought, and big man though he was, he had always been quick of action. He knew what Miss Pett's objective was, and he let her advance half-way across the room on her stealthy path to the waistcoat. But silently as she came on with that cat-like tread, Mallalieu had just as silently drawn the revolver from beneath his pillow and turned its small muzzle on her. It had a highly polished barrel, that revolver, and Miss Pett suddenly caught a tiny scintillation of light on it--and she screamed. And as she screamed Mallalieu fired, and the scream died down to a queer choking sound ... and he fired again ... and where Christopher Pett's face had shown itself a second before there was nothing--save another choking sound and a fall in the entry where Christopher had stood and watched.
After that followed a silence so deep that Mallalieu felt the drums of his ears aching intensely in the effort to catch any sound, however small. But he heard nothing--not even a sigh. It was as if all the awful silences that had ever been in the cavernous places of the world had been crystallized into one terrible silence and put into that room.
He reached out at last and found his candle and the matches, and he got more light and leaned forward in the bed, looking.
"Can't ha' got 'em both!" he muttered. "Both? But----"
He slowly lifted himself out of bed, huddled on some of the garments that lay carefully folded on the chair, and then, holding the candle to the floor, went forward to where the woman lay. She had collapsed between the foot of the bed and the wall; her shoulders were propped against the wall and the grotesque turban hung loosely down on one shoulder. And Mallalieu knew in that quick glance that she was dead, and he crept onward to the door and looked at the other still figure, lying just as supinely in the passage that led to the living-room. He looked longer at that ... and suddenly he turned back into his parlour-bedchamber, and carefully avoiding the dead woman put on his boots and began to dress with feverish haste.
And while he hurried on his clothes Mallalieu thought. He was not sure that he had meant to kill these two. He would have delighted in killing them certainly, hating them as he did, but he had an idea that when he fired he only meant to frighten them. But that was neither here nor there now. They were dead, but he was alive--and he must get out of that, and at once. The moors--the hills--anywhere....
A sudden heavy knocking at the door at the back of the cottage set Mallalieu shaking. He started for the front--to hear knocking there, too. Then came voices demanding admittance, and loudly crying the dead woman's name. He crept to a front window at that, and carefully drew a corner of the blind and looked out, and saw many men in the garden. One of them had a lantern, and as its glare glanced about Mallalieu set eyes on Cotherstone.