Chapter III. Murder

When Mallalieu had gone, Cotherstone gathered up the papers which his clerk had brought in, and sitting down at his desk tried to give his attention to them. The effort was not altogether a success. He had hoped that the sharing of the bad news with his partner would bring some relief to him, but his anxieties were still there. He was always seeing that queer, sinister look in Kitely's knowing eyes: it suggested that as long as Kitely lived there would be no safety. Even if Kitely kept his word, kept any compact made with him, he would always have the two partners under his thumb. And for thirty years Cotherstone had been under no man's thumb, and the fear of having a master was hateful to him. He heartily wished that Kitely was dead--dead and buried, and his secret with him; he wished that it had been anywise possible to have crushed the life out of him where he sat in that easy chair as soon as he had shown himself the reptile that he was. A man might kill any poisonous insect, any noxious reptile at pleasure--why not a human blood-sucker like that?

He sat there a long time, striving to give his attention to his papers, and making a poor show of it. The figures danced about before him; he could make neither head nor tail of the technicalities in the specifications and estimates; every now and then fits of abstraction came over him, and he sat drumming the tips of his fingers on his blotting-pad, staring vacantly at the shadows in the far depths of the room, and always thinking--thinking of the terrible danger of revelation. And always, as an under-current, he was saying that for himself he cared naught--Kitely could do what he liked, or would have done what he liked, had there only been himself to think for. But--Lettie! All his life was now centred in her, and in her happiness, and Lettie's happiness, he knew, was centred in the man she was going to marry. And Cotherstone, though he believed that he knew men pretty well, was not sure that he knew Windle Bent sufficiently to feel sure that he would endure a stiff test. Bent was ambitious--he was resolved on a career. Was he the sort of man to stand the knowledge which Kitely might give him? For there was always the risk that whatever he and Mallalieu might do, Kitely, while there was breath in him, might split.

A sudden ringing at the bell of the telephone in the outer office made Cotherstone jump in his chair as if the arresting hand of justice had suddenly been laid on him. In spite of himself he rose trembling, and there were beads of perspiration on his forehead as he walked across the room.

"Nerves!" he muttered to himself. "I must be in a queer way to be taken like that. It won't do!--especially at this turn. What is it?" he demanded, going to the telephone. "Who is that?"

His daughter's voice, surprised and admonitory, came to him along the wire.

"Is that you, father?" she exclaimed. "What are you doing? Don't you remember you asked Windle, and his friend Mr. Brereton, to supper at eight o'clock. It's a quarter to eight now. Do come home!"

Cotherstone let out an exclamation which signified annoyance. The event of the late afternoon had completely driven it out of his recollection that Windle Bent had an old school-friend, a young barrister from London, staying with him, and that both had been asked to supper that evening at Cotherstone's house. But Cotherstone's annoyance was not because of his own forgetfulness, but because his present abstraction made him dislike the notion of company.

"I'd forgotten--for the moment," he called. "I've been very busy. All right, Lettie--I'm coming on at once. Shan't be long."

But when he had left the telephone he made no haste. He lingered by his desk; he was slow in turning out the gas; slow in quitting and locking up his office; he went slowly away through the town. Nothing could have been further from his wishes than a desire to entertain company that night--and especially a stranger. His footsteps dragged as he passed through the market-place and turned into the outskirts beyond.

Some years previously to this, when they had both married and made money, the two partners had built new houses for themselves. Outside Highmarket, on its western boundary, rose a long, low hill called Highmarket Shawl; the slope which overhung the town was thickly covered with fir and pine, amidst which great masses of limestone crag jutted out here and there. At the foot of this hill, certain plots of building land had been sold, and Mallalieu had bought one and Cotherstone another, and on these they had erected two solid stone houses, fitted up with all the latest improvements known to the building trade. Each was proud of his house; each delighted in welcoming friends and acquaintances there--this was the first night Cotherstone could remember on which it was hateful to him to cross his own threshold. The lighted windows, the smell of good things cooked for supper, brought him no sense of satisfaction; he had to make a distinct effort to enter and to present a face of welcome to his two guests, who were already there, awaiting him.

"Couldn't get in earlier," he said, replying to Lettie's half-anxious, half-playful scoldings. "There was some awkward business turned up this evening--and as it is, I shall have to run away for an hour after supper--can't be helped. How do you do, sir?" he went on, giving his hand to the stranger. "Glad to see you in these parts--you'll find this a cold climate after London, I'm afraid."

He took a careful look at Bent's friend as they all sat down to supper--out of sheer habit of inspecting any man who was new to him. And after a glance or two he said to himself that this young limb of the law was a sharp chap--a keen-eyed, alert, noticeable fellow, whose every action and tone denoted great mental activity. He was sharper than Bent, said Cotherstone, and in his opinion, that was saying a good deal. Bent's ability was on the surface; he was an excellent specimen of the business man of action, who had ideas out of the common but was not so much given to deep and quiet thinking as to prompt doing of things quickly decided on. He glanced from one to the other, mentally comparing them. Bent was a tall, handsome man, blonde, blue-eyed, ready of word and laugh; Brereton, a medium-sized, compact fellow, dark of hair and eye, with an olive complexion that almost suggested foreign origin: the sort, decided Cotherstone, that thought a lot and said little. And forcing himself to talk he tried to draw the stranger out, watching him, too, to see if he admired Lettie. For it was one of Cotherstone's greatest joys in life to bring folk to his house and watch the effect which his pretty daughter had on them, and he was rewarded now in seeing that the young man from London evidently applauded his friend's choice and paid polite tribute to Lettie's charm.

"And what might you have been doing with Mr. Brereton since he got down yesterday?" asked Cotherstone. "Showing him round, of course?"

"I've been tormenting him chiefly with family history," answered Bent, with a laughing glance at his sweetheart. "You didn't know I was raking up everything I could get hold of about my forbears, did you? Oh, I've been busy at that innocent amusement for a month past--old Kitely put me up to it."

Cotherstone could barely repress an inclination to start in his chair; he himself was not sure that he did not show undue surprise.

"What!" he exclaimed. "Kitely? My tenant? What does he know about your family? A stranger!"

"Much more than I do," replied Bent. "The old chap's nothing to do, you know, and since he took up his abode here he's been spending all his time digging up local records--he's a good bit of an antiquary, and that sort of thing. The Town Clerk tells me Kitely's been through nearly all the old town documents--chests full of them! And Kitely told me one day that if I liked he'd trace our pedigree back to I don't know when, and as he seemed keen, I told him to go ahead. He's found out a lot of interesting things in the borough records that I never heard of."

Cotherstone had kept his eyes on his plate while Bent was talking; he spoke now without looking up.

"Oh?" he said, trying to speak unconcernedly. "Ah!--then you'll have been seeing a good deal of Kitely lately?"

"Not so much," replied Bent. "He's brought me the result of his work now and then--things he's copied out of old registers, and so on."

"And what good might it all amount to?" asked Cotherstone, more for the sake of talking than for any interest he felt. "Will it come to aught?"

"Bent wants to trace his family history back to the Conquest," observed Brereton, slyly. "He thinks the original Bent came over with the Conqueror. But his old man hasn't got beyond the Tudor period yet."

"Never mind!" said Bent. "There were Bents in Highmarket in Henry the Seventh's time, anyhow. And if one has a pedigree, why not have it properly searched out? He's a keen old hand at that sort of thing, Kitely. The Town Clerk says he can read some of our borough charters of six hundred years ago as if they were newspaper articles."

Cotherstone made no remark on that. He was thinking. So Kitely was in close communication with Bent, was he?--constantly seeing him, being employed by him? Well, that cut two ways. It showed that up to now he had taken no advantage of his secret knowledge and might therefore be considered as likely to play straight if he were squared by the two partners. But it also proved that Bent would probably believe anything that Kitely might tell him. Certainly Kitely must be dealt with at once. He knew too much, and was obviously too clever, to be allowed to go about unfettered. Cost what it might, he must be attached to the Mallalieu-Cotherstone interest. And what Cotherstone was concentrating on just then, as he ate and drank, was--how to make that attachment in such a fashion that Kitely would have no option but to keep silence. If only he and Mallalieu could get a hold on Kitely, such as that which he had on them----

"Well," he said as supper came to an end, "I'm sorry, but I'm forced to leave you gentlemen for an hour, at any rate--can't be helped. Lettie, you must try to amuse 'em until I come back. Sing Mr. Brereton some of your new songs. Bent--you know where the whisky and the cigars are--help yourselves--make yourselves at home."

"You won't be more than an hour, father?" asked Lettie.

"An hour'll finish what I've got to do," replied Cotherstone, "maybe less--I'll be as quick as I can, anyway, my lass."

He hurried off without further ceremony; a moment later and he had exchanged the warmth and brightness of his comfortable dining-room for the chill night and the darkness. And as he turned out of his garden he was thinking still further and harder. So Windle Bent was one of those chaps who have what folk call family pride, was he? Actually proud of the fact that he had a pedigree, and could say who his grandfather and grandmother were?--things on which most people were as hazy as they were indifferent. In that case, if he was really family-proud, all the more reason why Kitely should be made to keep his tongue still. For if Windle Bent was going on the game of making out that he was a man of family, he certainly would not relish the prospect of uniting his ancient blood with that of a man who had seen the inside of a prison. Kitely!--promptly and definitely--and for good!--that was the ticket.

Cotherstone went off into the shadows of the night--and a good hour had passed when he returned to his house. It was then ten o'clock; he afterwards remembered that he glanced at the old grandfather clock in his hall when he let himself in. All was very quiet in there; he opened the drawing-room door to find the two young men and Lettie sitting over a bright fire, and Brereton evidently telling the other two some story, which he was just bringing to a conclusion.

" ... for it's a fact, in criminal practice," Brereton was saying, "that there are no end of undiscovered crimes--there are any amount of guilty men going about free as the air, and----"

"Hope you've been enjoying yourselves," said Cotherstone, going forward to the group. "I've been as quick as I could."

"Mr. Brereton has been telling us most interesting stories about criminals," said Lettie. "Facts--much stranger than fiction!"

"Then I'm sure it's time he'd something to refresh himself with," said Cotherstone hospitably. "Come away, gentlemen, and we'll see if we can't find a drop to drink and a cigar to smoke."

He led the way to the dining-room and busied himself in bringing out some boxes of cigars from a cupboard while Lettie produced decanters and glasses from the sideboard.

"So you're interested in criminal matters, sir?" observed Cotherstone as he offered Brereton a cigar. "Going in for that line, eh?"

"What practice I've had has been in that line," answered Brereton, with a quiet laugh. "One sort of gets pitchforked into these things, you know, so----"

"What's that?" exclaimed Lettie, who was just then handing the young barrister a tumbler of whisky and soda which Bent had mixed for him. "Somebody running hurriedly up the drive--as if something had happened! Surely you're not going to be fetched out again, father?"

A loud ringing of the bell prefaced the entrance of some visitor, whose voice was heard in eager conversation with a parlourmaid in the hall.

"That's your neighbour--Mr. Garthwaite," said Bent.

Cotherstone set down the cigars and opened the dining-room door. A youngish, fresh-coloured man, who looked upset and startled, came out of the hall, glancing round him inquiringly.

"Sorry to intrude, Mr. Cotherstone," he said. "I say!--that old gentleman you let the cottage to--Kitely, you know."

"What of him?" demanded Cotherstone sharply.

"He's lying there in the coppice above your house--I stumbled over him coming through there just now," replied Garthwaite. "He--don't be frightened, Miss Cotherstone--he's--well, there's no doubt of it--he's dead! And----"

"And--what?" asked Cotherstone. "What, man? Out with it!"

"And I should say, murdered!" said Garthwaite. "I--yes, I just saw enough to say that. Murdered--without a doubt!"