The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter XXX. Cotherstone
Cotherstone walked out of the dock and the court and the Town Hall amidst a dead silence--which was felt and noticed by everybody but himself. At that moment he was too elated, too self-satisfied to notice anything. He held his head very high as he went out by the crowded doorway, and through the crowd which had gathered on the stairs; he might have been some general returning to be publicly feted as he emerged upon the broad steps under the Town Hall portico and threw a triumphant glance at the folk who had gathered there to hear the latest news. And there, in the open air, and with all those staring eyes upon him, he unconsciously indulged in a characteristic action. He had caused his best clothes to be sent to him at Norcaster Gaol the previous night, and he had appeared in them in the dock. The uppermost garment was an expensive overcoat, finished off with a deep fur collar: now, as he stood there on the top step, facing the crowd, he unbuttoned the coat, threw its lapels aside, and took a long, deep breath, as if he were inhaling the free air of liberty. There were one or two shrewd and observant folk amongst the onlookers--it seemed to them that this unconscious action typified that Cotherstone felt himself throwing off the shackles which he had worn, metaphorically speaking, for the last eight days.
But in all that crowd, no one went near Cotherstone. There were many of his fellow-members of the Corporation in it--councillors, aldermen--but none of them approached him or even nodded to him; all they did was to stare. The news of what had happened had quickly leaked out: it was known before he came into view that Cotherstone had been discharged--his appearance in that bold, self-assured fashion only led to covert whispers and furtive looks. But suddenly, from somewhere in the crowd, a sneering voice flung a contemptuous taunt across the staring faces.
"Well done, Cotherstone!--saved your own neck, anyway!"
There was a ripple of jeering laughter at that, and as Cotherstone turned angrily in the direction from whence the voice came, another, equally contemptuous, lifted itself from another corner of the crowd.
"King's evidence! Yah!--who'd believe Cotherstone? Liar!"
Cotherstone's face flushed angrily--the flush died as quickly away and gave place to a sickly pallor. And at that a man who had stood near him beneath the portico, watching him inquisitively, stepped nearer and whispered--
"Go home, Mr. Cotherstone!--take my advice, and get quietly away, at once!"
Cotherstone rejected this offer of good counsel with a sudden spasm of furious anger.
"You be hanged!" he snarled. "Who's asking you for your tongue? D'ye think I'm afraid of a pack like yon? Who's going to interfere with me, I'd like to know? Go home yourself!"
He turned towards the door from which he had just emerged--turned to see his solicitor and his counsel coming out together. And his sudden anger died down, and his face relaxed to a smile of triumph.
"Now then!" he exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you how it would be, a week since! Come on across to the Arms and I'll stand a bottle--aye, two, three, if you like!--of the very best. Come on, both of you."
The solicitor, glancing around, saw something of the state of affairs, hurriedly excused himself, and slipped back into the Town Hall by another entrance. But the barrister, a man who, great as his forensic abilities were, was one of those people who have no private reputation to lose, and of whom it was well known that he could never withstand the temptation to a bottle of champagne, assented readily, and with great good humour. And he and Cotherstone, arm in arm, walked down the steps and across the Market Place--and behind them the crowd sneered and laughed and indulged in audible remarks.
Cotherstone paid, or affected to pay, no heed. He steered his companion into the Arms, and turned into the great bow-windowed room which served as morning meeting-place for all the better class of loungers and townsmen in Highmarket. The room was full already. Men had come across from the court, and from the crowd outside; a babel of talk arose from every corner. But when Cotherstone and the well-known barrister (so famous in that circuit for his advocacy of criminals that he had acquired the nickname of the Felons' Friend) entered, a dead silence fell, and men looked at this curious pair and then at each other with significant glances.
In that silence, Cotherstone, seizing a waiter, loudly demanded champagne and cigars: he glared defiantly around him as he supplemented the order with a command for the best box of cigars in the house, the best champagne in the cellars. A loud laugh from some corner of the room broke the silence, and the waiter, a shrewd fellow who saw how things were, gave Cotherstone a look.
"Come into the small parlour, Mr. Cotherstone," he whispered. "Nobody in there--you'll be more comfortable, sir."
"All right, then," responded Cotherstone. He glared once more at the company around him, and his defiance suddenly broke out in another fashion. "Any friend of mine that likes to join us," he said pointedly, "is welcome. Who's coming, like?"
There was another hoarse laugh at this, and most of the men there turned their backs on Cotherstone and began to talk loudly. But one or two of the less particular and baser sort, whom Cotherstone would certainly not have called friends a week before, nudged each other and made towards the door which the waiter held invitingly open--it was not every day that the best champagne and the best cigars were to be had for nothing, and if Cotherstone liked to fling him money about, what did it matter, so long as they benefited by his folly?
"That's the style!" said Cotherstone, pushing the barrister along. "Bring two--bring three bottles," he cried to the waiter. "Big 'uns!--and the best."
An elderly man, one of Cotherstone's fellow-members of the Corporation, came forward and caught him by the arm.
"Cotherstone!" he whispered. "Don't be a fool! Think of what's only just over. Go home, like a good fellow--go quietly home. You're doing no good with this--you'll have all the town talking!"
"Hang the town, and you too!" snapped Cotherstone. "You're one of them that shouted at me in front of the Town Hall, curse you! I'll let you and all Highmarket see what I care for you. What's it to you if I have a quiet glass of wine with my friends?"
But there was no quiet drinking of a glass of wine in the parlour to which Cotherstone and his cronies retired. Whenever its door opened Cotherstone's excited tones were heard in the big room, and the more sober-minded of the men who listened began to shake their heads.
"What's the matter with him?" asked one. "Nobody ever knew him like this before! What's he carrying on in that fashion for?"
"He's excited with getting off," said another. "And that bit of a scene outside there threw him off his balance. He should ha' been taken straight home. Nice lot he's got with him, too! We all know what yon barrister chap is--he can drink champagne like water, they say, and for the others--listen to that, now!" he added as a burst of excited talking came through the opened door. "He'll be in a fine fit state to go home to that daughter of his, I know, if that goes on."
"It mustn't go on," said another, and got up. "I'll go across to Bent's and get him to come over and take Cotherstone away. Bent's the only man that'll have any influence with him."
He went out and crossed the Market Place to Bent's office. But Bent was not there. By his advice Lettie had gone to stay with some friends until the recent proceedings were over in one way or another, and Bent himself, as soon as Cotherstone had left the court, had hurried away to catch a train to the town in which she was temporarily staying in order to tell her the news and bring her home. So the would-be doer-of-good went back disappointed--and as he reached the hotel, Cotherstone and the barrister emerged from it, parted at the door with evident great cordiality, and went their several ways. And Cotherstone, passing the man who had been to Bent's, stared him in the face and cut him dead.
"It's going to be war to the knife between Cotherstone and the town," remarked the ambassador, when he re-entered the big room and joined his own circle. "He passed me just now as if I were one of the paving-stones he trod on! And did you see his face as he went out?--egad, instead of looking as if he'd had too much to drink, he looked too sober to please me. You mind if something doesn't happen--yon fellow's desperate!"
"What should he be desperate about?" asked one of the group. "He's saved his own neck!"
"It was that shouting at him when he came out that did it," observed another man quietly. "He's the sort of man to resent aught like that. If Cotherstone thinks public opinion's against him--well, we shall see!"
Cotherstone walked steadily away through the Market Place when he left the barrister. Whatever the men in the big room might have thought, he had not been indulging too freely in the little parlour. He had pressed champagne on the group around him, but the amount he had taken himself had not been great and it had pulled him together instead of intoxicating him. And his excitement had suddenly died down, and he had stopped what might have developed into a drinking bout by saying that he must go home. And once outside, he made for his house, and as he went he looked neither to right nor left, and if he met friend or acquaintance his face became hard as flint.
Cotherstone, indeed, was burning and seething with indignation. The taunts flung at him as he stood on the Town Hall steps, the looks turned in his direction as he walked away with the convivially inclined barrister, the expression on the faces of the men in the big room at the Highmarket Arms--all these things had stung him to the quick. He knew, whatever else he might have been, or was, he had proved a faithful servant to the town. He had been a zealous member of the Corporation, he had taken hold of the financial affairs of the borough when they were in a bad way and had put them in a safe and prosperous footing; he had worked, thought, and planned for the benefit of the place--and this was his reward! For he knew that those taunts, those looks, those half-averted, half-sneering faces meant one thing, and one thing only--the Highmarket men believed him equally guilty with Mallalieu, and had come to the conclusion that he was only let off in order that direct evidence against Mallalieu might be forthcoming. He cursed them deeply and bitterly--and sneered at them in the same breath, knowing that even as they were weathercocks, veering this way and that at the least breath of public opinion, so they were also utter fools, wholly unable to see or to conjecture.
The excitement that had seized upon Cotherstone in face of that public taunting of him died away in the silence of his own house--when Lettie and Bent returned home in the course of the afternoon they found him unusually cool and collected. Bent had come with uneasy feelings and apprehensions; one of the men who had been at the Highmarket Arms had chanced to be in the station when he and Lettie arrived, and had drawn him aside and told him of what had occurred, and that Cotherstone was evidently going on the drink. But there were no signs of anything unusual about Cotherstone when Bent found him. He said little about the events of the morning to either Bent or Lettie; he merely remarked that things had turned out just as he had expected and that now perhaps they would get matters settled; he had tea with them; he was busy with his books and papers in his own room until supper-time; he showed no signs of anything unusual at supper, and when an hour later he left the house, saying that he must go down to the office and fetch the accumulated correspondence, his manner was so ordinary that Bent saw no reason why he should accompany him.
But Cotherstone had no intention of going to his office. He left his house with a fixed determination. He would know once and for all what Highmarket felt towards and about him. He was not the man to live under suspicion and averted looks, and if he was to be treated as a suspect and a pariah he would know at once.
There was at that time in Highmarket a small and select club, having its house in the Market Place, to which all the principal townsmen belonged. Both Mallalieu and Cotherstone had been members since its foundation; Cotherstone, indeed, was its treasurer. He knew that the club would be crowded that night--very well, he would go there and boldly face public opinion. If his fellow-members cut him, gave him the cold shoulder, ignored him--all right, he would know what to do then.
But Cotherstone never got inside the club. As he set his foot on the threshold he met one of the oldest members--an alderman of the borough, for whom he had a great respect. This man, at sight of him, started, stopped, laid a friendly but firm hand on his arm, and deliberately turned him round.
"No, my lad!" he said kindly. "Not in there tonight! If you don't know how to take care of yourself, let a friend take care of you. Have a bit of sense, Cotherstone! Do you want to expose yourself again to what you got outside the Town Hall this noon! No--no!--go away, my lad, go home--come home with me, if you like--you're welcome!"
The last word softened Cotherstone: he allowed himself to be led away along the street.
"I'm obliged to you," he said brusquely. "You mean well. But--do you mean to say that those fellows in there--men that know me--are thinking--that!"
"It's a hard, censorious world, this," answered the elder man. "Leave 'em alone a bit--don't shove yourself on 'em. Come away--come home and have a cigar with me."
"Thank you," said Cotherstone. "You wouldn't ask me to do that if you thought as they do. Thank you! But I've something to do--and I'll go and do it at once."
He pressed his companion's arm, and turned away--and the other man watching him closely, saw him walk off to the police-station, to the superintendent's private door. He saw him enter--and at that he shook his head and went away himself, wondering what it was that Cotherstone wanted with the police.
The superintendent, tired by a long day's work, was taking his ease with his pipe and his glass when Cotherstone was shown into his parlour. He started with amazement at the sight of his visitor: Cotherstone motioned him back to his chair.
"Don't let me disturb you," said Cotherstone. "I want a word or two with you in private--that's all."
The superintendent had heard of the scene at the hotel, and had had his fears about its sequel. But he was quick to see that his visitor was not only sober, but remarkably cool and normal, and he hastened to offer him a glass of whisky.
"Aye, thank you, I will," replied Cotherstone, seating himself. "It'll be the first spirits I've tasted since you locked me up, and I daresay it'll do me no harm. Now then," he went on as the two settled themselves by the hearth, "I want a bit of a straight talk with you. You know me--we've been friends. I want you to tell me, straight, plain, truthful--what are Highmarket folk thinking and saying about me? Come!"
The superintendent's face clouded and he shook his head.
"Well, you know what folks will be, Mr. Cotherstone!" he answered. "And you know how very ready to say nasty things these Highmarket people are. I'm not a Highmarket man myself, any more than you are, and I've always regarded 'em as very bitter-tongued folk, and so----"
"Out with it!" said Cotherstone. "Let's know the truth--never mind what tongues it comes from. What are they saying?"
"Well," replied the superintendent, reluctantly, "of course I get to hear everything. If you must have it, the prevailing notion is that both you and Mr. Mallalieu had a hand in Kitely's death. They think his murder's at your doors, and that what happened to Stoner was a by-chance. And if you want the whole truth, they think you're a deal cleverer than Mallalieu, and that Kitely probably met his end at your hands, with your partner's connivance. And there are those who say that if Mallalieu's caught--as he will be--he'll split on you. That's all, sir."
"And what do you think?" demanded Cotherstone.
The superintendent shifted uneasily in his chair.
"I've never been able to bring myself to think that either you or Mallalieu 'ud murder a man in cold blood, as Kitely was murdered," he said. "As regards Stoner, I've firmly held to it that Mallalieu struck him in a passion. But--I've always felt this--you, or Mallalieu, or both of you, know more about the Kitely affair than you've ever told!"
Cotherstone leaned forward and tapped his host on the arm.
"I do!" he said significantly. "You're right in that. I--do!"
The superintendent laid down his pipe and looked at his visitor gravely.
"Then for goodness sake, Mr. Cotherstone," he exclaimed, "for goodness sake, tell! For as sure as we're sitting here, as things are at present, Mallalieu 'll hang if you don't! If he doesn't hang for Stoner, he will for Kitely, for if he gets off over Stoner he'll be re-arrested on the other charge."
"Half an hour ago," remarked Cotherstone, "I shouldn't have minded if Mallalieu had been hanged half a dozen times. Revenge is sweet--and I've good reason for being revenged on Mallalieu. But now--I'm inclined to tell the truth. Do you know why? Why--to show these Highmarket folks that they're wrong!"
The superintendent sighed. He was a plain, honest, simple man, and Cotherstone's reason seemed a strange--even a wicked one--to him. To tell the truth merely to spite one's neighbour--a poor, poor reason, when there was life at stake.
"Aye, Mr. Cotherstone, but you ought to tell the truth in any case!" he said. "If you know it, get it out and be done with it. We've had enough trouble already. If you can clear things up----"
"Listen!" interrupted Cotherstone. "I'll tell you all I know--privately. If you think good, it can be put into proper form. Very well, then! You remember the night of Kitely's murder?"
"Aye, I should think so!" said the superintendent. "Good reason to!"
"Let your mind go back to it, and to what you've since heard of it," said Cotherstone. "You know that on that afternoon Kitely had threatened me and Mallalieu with exposure about the Wilchester affair. He wanted to blackmail us. I told Mallalieu, of course--we were both to think about it till next day. But I did naught but think--I didn't want exposure for my daughter's sake: I'd ha' given anything to avoid it, naturally. I had young Bent and that friend of his, Brereton, to supper that night--I was so full of thought that I went out and left 'em for an hour or more. The truth was I wanted to get a word with Kitely. I went up the wood at the side of my house towards Kitely's cottage--and all of a sudden I came across a man lying on the ground--him!--just where we found him afterwards."
"Dead?" asked the superintendent.
"Only just," replied Cotherstone. "But he was dead--and I saw what had caused his death, for I struck a match to look at him. I saw that empty pocket-book lying by--I saw a scrap of folded newspaper, too, and I picked it up and later, when I'd read it, I put it in a safe place--I've taken it from that place tonight for the first time, and it's here--you keep it. Well--I went on, up to the cottage. The door was open--I looked in. Yon woman, Miss Pett, was at the table by the lamp, turning over some papers--I saw Kitely's writing on some of 'em. I stepped softly in and tapped her on the arm, and she screamed and started back. I looked at her. 'Do you know that your master's lying dead, murdered, down amongst those trees?' I said. Then she pulled herself together, and she sort of got between me and the door. 'No, I don't!' she says. 'But if he is, I'm not surprised, for I've warned him many a time about going out after nightfall.' I looked hard at her. 'What're you doing with his papers there?' I says. 'Papers!' she says. 'They're naught but old bills and things that he gave me to sort.' 'That's a lie!' I says, 'those aren't bills and I believe you know something about this, and I'm off for the police--to tell!' Then she pushed the door to behind her and folded her arms and looked at me. 'You tell a word,' she says, 'and I'll tell it all over the town that you and your partner's a couple of ex-convicts! I know your tale--Kitely'd no secrets from me. You stir a step to tell anybody, and I'll begin by going straight to young Bent--and I'll not stop at that, neither.' So you see where I was--I was frightened to death of that old affair getting out, and I knew then that Kitely was a liar and had told this old woman all about it, and--well, I hesitated. And she saw that she had me, and she went on, 'You hold your tongue, and I'll hold mine!' she says. 'Nobody'll accuse me, I know--but if you speak one word, I'll denounce you! You and your partner are much more likely to have killed Kitely than I am! Well, I still stood, hesitating. 'What's to be done?' I asked at last. 'Do naught,' she said. 'Go home, like a wise man, and know naught about it. Let him be found--and say naught. But if you do, you know what to expect.' 'Not a word that I came in here, then?' I said at last. 'Nobody'll get no words from me beyond what I choose to give 'em', she says. 'And--silence about the other?' I said. 'Just as long as you're silent,' she says. And with that I walked out--and I set off towards home by another way. And just as I was leaving the wood to turn into the path that leads into our lane I heard a man coming along and I shrank into some shrubs and watched for him till he came close up. He passed me and went on to the cottage--and I slipped back then and looked in through the window, and there he was, and they were both whispering together at the table. And it--was this woman's nephew--Pett, the lawyer."
The superintendent, whose face had assumed various expressions during this narrative, lifted his hands in amazement.
"But--but we were in and about that cottage most of that night--afterwards!" he exclaimed. "We never saw aught of him. I know he was supposed to come down from London the next night, but----"
"Tell you he was there that night!" insisted Cotherstone. "D'ye think I could mistake him? Well, I went home--and you know what happened afterwards: you know what she said and how she behaved when we went up--and of course I played my part. But--that bit of newspaper I've given you. I read it carefully that night, last thing. It's a column cut out of a Woking newspaper of some years ago--it's to do with an inquest in which this woman was concerned--there seems to be some evidence that she got rid of an employer of hers by poison. And d'ye know what I think, now?--I think that had been sent to Kitely, and he'd plagued her about it, or held it out as a threat to her--and--what is it?"
The superintendent had risen and was taking down his overcoat.
"Do you know that this woman's leaving the town tomorrow?" he said. "And there's her nephew with her, now--been here for a week? Of course, I understand why you've told me all this, Mr. Cotherstone--now that your old affair at Wilchester is common knowledge, far and wide, you don't care, and you don't see any reason for more secrecy?"
"My reason," answered Cotherstone, with a grim smile, "is to show Highmarket folk that they aren't so clever as they think. For the probability is that Kitely was killed by that woman, or her nephew, or both."
"I'm going up there with a couple of my best men, any way," said the superintendent. "There's no time to lose if they're clearing out tomorrow."
"I'll come with you," said Cotherstone. He waited, staring at the fire until the superintendent had been into the adjacent police-station and had come back to say that he and his men were ready. "What do you mean to do?" he asked as the four of them set out. "Take them?"
"Question them first," answered the superintendent. "I shan't let them get out of my sight, any way, after what you've told me, for I expect you're right in your conclusions. What is it?" he asked, as one of the two men who followed behind called him.
The man pointed down the Market Place to the doors of the police-station.
"Two cars just pulled up there, sir," he said. "Came round the corner just now from the Norcaster road."
The superintendent glanced back and saw two staring headlights standing near his own door.
"Oh, well, there's Smith there," he said. "And if it's anybody wanting me, he knows where I've gone. Come on--for aught we know these two may have cleared out already."
But there were thin cracks of light in the living-room window of the lonely cottage on the Shawl, and the superintendent whispered that somebody was certainly there and still up. He halted his companions outside the garden gate and turned to Cotherstone.
"I don't know if it'll be advisable for you to be seen," he said. "I think our best plan'll be for me to knock at the front door and ask for the woman. You other two go round--quietly--to the back door, and take care that nobody gets out that way to the moors at the back--if anybody once escapes to those moors they're as good as lost for ever on a dark night. Go round--and when you hear me knock at the front, you knock at the back."
The two men slipped away round the corner of the garden and through the adjacent belt of trees, and the superintendent gently lifted the latch of the garden gate.
"You keep back, Mr. Cotherstone, when I go to the door," he said. "You never know--hullo, what's this?"
Men were coming up the wood behind them, quietly but quickly. One of them, ahead of the others, carried a bull's-eye lamp and in swinging it about revealed himself as one of the superintendent's own officers. He caught sight of his superior and came forward.
"Mr. Brereton's here, sir, and some gentlemen from Norcaster," he said. "They want to see you particularly--something about this place, so I brought them----"
It was at that moment that the sound of the two revolver shots rang out in the silence from the stillness of the cottage. And at that the superintendent dashed forward, with a cry to the others, and began to beat on the front door, and while his men responded with similar knockings at the back he called loudly on Miss Pett to open.
It was Mallalieu who at last flung the door open and confronted the amazed and wondering group clustered thickly without. Every man there shrank back affrighted at the desperation on the cornered man's face. But Mallalieu did not shrink, and his hand was strangely steady as he singled out his partner and shot him dead--and just as steady as he stepped back and turned the revolver on himself.
A moment later the superintendent snatched the bull's-eye lamp from his man, and stepped over Mallalieu's dead body and went into the cottage--to come back on the instant shivering and sick with shock at the sight his startled eyes had met.