The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IV. The Pine Wood
Brereton, standing back in the room, the cigar which Cotherstone had just given him unlighted in one hand, the glass which Lettie had presented to him in the other, was keenly watching the man who had just spoken and the man to whom he spoke. But all his attention was quickly concentrated on Cotherstone. For despite a strong effort to control himself, Cotherstone swayed a little, and instinctively put out a hand and clutched Bent's arm. He paled, too--the sudden spasm of pallor was almost instantly succeeded by a quick flush of colour. He made another effort--and tried to laugh.
"Nonsense, man!" he said thickly and hoarsely. "Murder? Who should want to kill an old chap like that? It's--here, give me a drink, one of you--that's--a bit startling!"
Bent seized a tumbler which he himself had just mixed, and Cotherstone gulped off half its contents. He looked round apologetically.
"I--I think I'm not as strong as I was," he muttered. "Overwork, likely--I've been a bit shaky of late. A shock like that----"
"I'm sorry," said Garthwaite, who looked surprised at the effect of his news. "I ought to have known better. But you see, yours is the nearest house----"
"Quite right, my lad, quite right," exclaimed Cotherstone. "You did the right thing. Here!--we'd better go up. Have you called the police?"
"I sent the man from the cottage at the foot of your garden," answered Garthwaite. "He was just locking up as I passed, so I told him, and sent him off."
"We'll go," said Cotherstone. He looked round at his guests. "You'll come?" he asked.
"Don't you go, father," urged Lettie, "if you're not feeling well."
"I'm all right," insisted Cotherstone. "A mere bit of weakness--that's all. Now that I know what's to be faced--" he twisted suddenly on Garthwaite--"what makes you think it's murder?" he demanded. "Murder! That's a big word."
Garthwaite glanced at Lettie, who was whispering to Bent, and shook his head.
"Tell you when we get outside," he said. "I don't want to frighten your daughter."
"Come on, then," said Cotherstone. He hurried into the hall and snatched up an overcoat. "Fetch me that lantern out of the kitchen," he called to the parlourmaid. "Light it! Don't you be afraid, Lettie," he went on, turning to his daughter. "There's naught to be afraid of--now. You gentlemen coming with us?"
Bent and Brereton had already got into their coats: when the maid came with the lantern, all four men went out. And as soon as they were in the garden Cotherstone turned on Garthwaite.
"How do you know he's murdered?" he asked. "How could you tell?"
"I'll tell you all about it, now we're outside," answered Garthwaite. "I'd been over to Spennigarth, to see Hollings. I came back over the Shawl, and made a short cut through the wood. And I struck my foot against something--something soft, you know--I don't like thinking of that! And so I struck a match, and looked, and saw this old fellow--don't like thinking of that, either. He was laid there, a few yards out of the path that runs across the Shawl at that point. I saw he was dead--and as for his being murdered, well, all I can say is, he's been strangled! That's flat."
"Strangled!" exclaimed Bent.
"Aye, without doubt," replied Garthwaite. "There's a bit of rope round his neck that tight that I couldn't put my little finger between it and him! But you'll see for yourselves--it's not far up the Shawl. You never heard anything, Mr. Cotherstone?"
"No, we heard naught," answered Cotherstone. "If it's as you say, there'd be naught to hear."
He had led them out of his grounds by a side-gate, and they were now in the thick of the firs and pines which grew along the steep, somewhat rugged slope of the Shawl. He put the lantern into Garthwaite's hand.
"Here--you show the way," he said. "I don't know where it is, of course."
"You were going straight to it," remarked Garthwaite. He turned to Brereton, who was walking at his side. "You're a lawyer, aren't you?" he asked. "I heard that Mr. Bent had a lawyer friend stopping with him just now--we hear all the bits of news in a little place like Highmarket. Well--you'll understand, likely--it hadn't been long done!"
"You noticed that?" said Brereton.
"I touched him," replied Garthwaite. "His hand and cheek were--just warm. He couldn't have been dead so very long--as I judged matters. And--here he is!"
He twisted sharply round the corner of one of the great masses of limestone which cropped out amongst the trees, and turned the light of the lantern on the dead man.
"There!" he said in a hushed voice. "There!"
The four men came to a halt, each gazing steadily at the sight they had come to see. It needed no more than a glance to assure each that he was looking on death: there was that in Kitely's attitude which forbade any other possibility.
"He's just as I found him," whispered Garthwaite. "I came round this rock from there, d'ye see, and my foot knocked against his shoulder. But, you know, he's been dragged here! Look at that!"
Brereton, after a glance at the body, had looked round at its surroundings. The wood thereabouts was carpeted--thickly carpeted--with pine needles; they lay several inches thick beneath the trunks of the trees; they stretched right up to the edge of the rock. And now, as Garthwaite turned the lantern, they saw that on this soft carpet there was a great slur--the murderer had evidently dragged his victim some yards across the pine needles before depositing him behind the rock. And at the end of this mark there were plain traces of a struggle--the soft, easily yielding stuff was disturbed, kicked about, upheaved, but as Brereton at once recognized, it was impossible to trace footprints in it.
"That's where it must have been," said Garthwaite. "You see there's a bit of a path there. The old man must have been walking along that path, and whoever did it must have sprung out on him there--where all those marks are--and when he'd strangled him dragged him here. That's how I figure it, Mr. Cotherstone."
Lights were coming up through the wood beneath them, glancing from point to point amongst the trees. Then followed a murmur of voices, and three or four men came into view--policemen, carrying their lamps, the man whom Garthwaite had sent into the town, and a medical man who acted as police surgeon.
"Here!" said Bent, as the newcomers advanced and halted irresolutely. "This way, doctor--there's work for you here--of a sort, anyway. Of course, he's dead?"
The doctor had gone forward as soon as he caught sight of the body, and he dropped on his knees at its side while the others gathered round. In the added light everybody now saw things more clearly. Kitely lay in a heap--just as a man would lie who had been unceremoniously thrown down. But Brereton's sharp eyes saw at once that after he had been flung at the foot of the mass of rock some hand had disarranged his clothing. His overcoat and under coat had been torn open, hastily, if not with absolute violence; the lining of one trousers pocket was pulled out; there were evidences that his waistcoat had been unbuttoned and its inside searched: everything seemed to indicate that the murderer had also been a robber.
"He's not been dead very long," said the doctor, looking up. "Certainly not more than three-quarters of an hour. Strangled? Yes!--and by somebody who has more than ordinary knowledge of how quickly a man may be killed in that way! Look how this cord is tied--no amateur did that."
He turned back the neckcloth from the dead man's throat, and showed the others how the cord had been slipped round the neck in a running-knot and fastened tightly with a cunning twist.
"Whoever did this had done the same thing before--probably more than once," he continued. "No man with that cord round his neck, tightly knotted like that, would have a chance--however free his hands might be. He'd be dead before he could struggle. Does no one know anything about this? No more than that?" he went on, when he had heard what Garthwaite could tell. "Well, this is murder, anyway! Are there no signs of anything about here?"
"Don't you think his clothing looks as if he had been robbed?" said Brereton, pointing to the obvious signs. "That should be noted before he's moved."
"I've noted that, sir," said the police-sergeant, who had bent over the body while the doctor was examining it. "There's one of his pockets turned inside out, and all his clothing's been torn open. Robbery, of course--that's what it's been--murder for the sake of robbery!"
One of the policemen, having satisfied his curiosity stepped back and began to search the surroundings with the aid of his lamp. He suddenly uttered a sharp exclamation.
"Here's something!" he said, stooping to the foot of a pine-tree and picking up a dark object. "An old pocket-book--nothing in it, though."
"That was his," remarked Cotherstone. "I've seen it before. He used to carry it in an inner pocket. Empty, do you say?--no papers?"
"Not a scrap of anything," answered the policeman, handing the book over to his sergeant, and proceeding to search further. "We'd best to see if there's any footprints about."
"You'd better examine that path, then," said Garthwaite. "You'll find no prints on all this pine-needle stuff--naught to go by, anyway--it's too thick and soft. But he must have come along that path, one way or another--I've met him walking in here of an evening, more than once."
The doctor, who had exchanged a word or two with the sergeant, turned to Cotherstone.
"Wasn't he a tenant of yours?" he asked. "Had the cottage at the top of the Shawl here. Well, we'd better have the body removed there, and some one should go up and warn his family."
"There's no family," answered Cotherstone. "He'd naught but a housekeeper--Miss Pett. She's an elderly woman--and not likely to be startled, from what I've seen of her."
"I'll go," said Bent. "I know the housekeeper." He touched Brereton's elbow, and led him away amongst the trees and up the wood. "This is a strange affair!" he continued when they were clear of the others. "Did you hear what Dr. Rockcliffe said?--that whoever had done it was familiar with that sort of thing!"
"I saw for myself," replied Brereton. "I noticed that cord, and the knot on it, at once. A man whose neck was tied up like that could be thrown down, thrown anywhere, left to stand up, if you like, and he'd be literally helpless, even if, as the doctor said, he had the use of his hands. He'd be unconscious almost at once--dead very soon afterwards. Murder?--I should think so!--and a particularly brutal and determined one. Bent!--whoever killed that poor old fellow was a man of great strength and of--knowledge! Knowledge, mind you!--he knew the trick. You haven't any doubtful character in Highmarket who has ever lived in India, have you?"
"India! Why India?" asked Bent.
"Because I should say that the man who did that job has learned some of the Indian tricks with cords and knots," answered Brereton. "That murder's suggestive of Thuggeeism in some respects. That the cottage?" he went on, pointing to a dim light ahead of him. "This housekeeper, now?--is she the sort who'll take it quietly?"
"She's as queer a character as the old fellow himself was," replied Bent, as they cleared the wood and entered a hedge-enclosed garden at the end of which stood an old-fashioned cottage. "I've talked to her now and then when calling here--I should say she's a woman of nerve."
Brereton looked narrowly at Miss Pett when she opened the door. She carried a tallow candle in one hand and held it high above her head to throw a light on the callers; its dim rays fell more on herself than on them. A tall, gaunt, elderly woman, almost fleshless of face, and with a skin the colour of old parchment, out of which shone a pair of bright black eyes; the oddity of her appearance was heightened by her head-dress--a glaring red and yellow handkerchief tightly folded in such a fashion as to cover any vestige of hair. Her arms, bare to the elbow, and her hands were as gaunt as her face, but Brereton was quick to recognize the suggestion of physical strength in the muscles and sinews under the parchment-like skin. A strange, odd-looking woman altogether, he thought, and not improved by the fact that she appeared to have lost all her teeth, and that a long, sharp nose and prominent chin almost met before her sunken lips.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Mr. Bent?" she said, before either of the young men could speak. "Mr. Kitely's gone out for his regular bedtime constitution--he will have that, wet or fine, every night. But he's much longer than usual, and----"
She stopped suddenly, seeing some news in Bent's face, and her own contracted to a questioning look.
"Is there aught amiss?" she asked. "Has something happened him? Aught that's serious? You needn't be afraid to speak, Mr. Bent--there's naught can upset or frighten me, let me tell you--I'm past all that!"
"I'm afraid Mr. Kitely's past everything, too, then," said Bent. He looked steadily at her for a moment, and seeing that she understood, went on. "They're bringing him up, Miss Pett--you'd better make ready. You won't be alarmed--I don't think there's any doubt that he's been murdered."
The woman gazed silently at her visitors; then, nodding her turbaned head, she drew back into the cottage.
"It's what I expected," she muttered. "I warned him--more than once. Well--let them bring him, then."
She vanished into a side-room, and Bent and Brereton went down the garden and met the others, carrying the dead man. Cotherstone followed behind the police, and as he approached Bent he pulled him by the sleeve and drew him aside.
"There's a clue!" he whispered. "A clue, d'ye hear--a strong clue!"