The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter V. The Cord
Ever since they had left the house at the foot of the pine wood, Brereton had been conscious of a curious psychological atmosphere, centring in Cotherstone. It had grown stronger as events had developed; it was still stronger now as they stood outside the dead man's cottage, the light from the open door and the white-curtained window falling on Cotherstone's excited face. Cotherstone, it seemed to Brereton, was unduly eager about something--he might almost be said to be elated. All of his behaviour was odd. He had certainly been shocked when Garthwaite burst in with the news--but this shock did not seem to be of the ordinary sort. He had looked like fainting--but when he recovered himself his whole attitude (so, at any rate, it had seemed to Brereton) had been that of a man who has just undergone a great relief. To put the whole thing into a narrow compass, it seemed as if Cotherstone appeared to be positively pleased to hear--and to find beyond doubt--that Kitely was dead. And now, as he stood glancing from one young man to the other, his eyes glittered as if he were absolutely enjoying the affair: he reminded Brereton of that type of theatre-goer who will insist on pointing out stage effects as they occur before his eyes, forcing his own appreciation of them upon fellow-watchers whose eyes are as keen as his own.
"A strong clue!" repeated Cotherstone, and said it yet again. "A good 'un! And if it's right, it'll clear matters up."
"What is it?" asked Bent. He, too, seemed to be conscious that there was something odd about his prospective father-in-law, and he was gazing speculatively at him as if in wonder. "What sort of a clue?"
"It's a wonder it didn't strike me--and you, too--at first," said Cotherstone, with a queer sound that was half a chuckle. "But as long as it's struck somebody, eh? One's as good as another. You can't think of what it is, now?"
"I don't know what you're thinking about," replied Bent, half impatiently.
Cotherstone gave vent to an unmistakable chuckle at that, and he motioned them to follow him into the cottage.
"Come and see for yourselves, then," he said. "You'll spot it. But, anyway--Mr. Brereton, being a stranger, can't be expected to."
The three men walked into the living-room of the cottage--a good-sized, open-raftered, old-fashioned place, wherein burnt a bright fire, at either side of which stood two comfortable armchairs. Before one of these chairs, their toes pointing upwards against the fender, were a pair of slippers; on a table close by stood an old lead tobacco-box, flanked by a church-warden pipe, a spirit decanter, a glass, and a plate on which were set out sugar and lemon--these Brereton took to be indicative that Kitely, his evening constitutional over, was in the habit of taking a quiet pipe and a glass of something warm before going to bed. And looking round still further he became aware of an open door--the door into which Miss Pett had withdrawn--and of a bed within on which Kitely now lay, with Dr. Rockcliffe and the police-sergeant bending over him. The other policemen stood by the table in the living-room, and one of them--the man who had picked up the pocket-book--whispered audibly to Cotherstone as he and his companions entered.
"The doctor's taking it off him," he said, with a meaning nod of his head. "I'll lay aught it's as I say, Mr. Cotherstone."
"Looks like it," agreed Cotherstone, rubbing his hands. "It certainly looks like it, George. Sharp of you to notice it, though."
Brereton took this conversation to refer to the mysterious clue, and his suspicion was confirmed a moment later. The doctor and the sergeant came into the living-room, the doctor carrying something in his hand which he laid down on the centre table in full view of all of them. And Brereton saw then that he had removed from the dead man's neck the length of grey cord with which he had been strangled.
There was something exceedingly sinister in the mere placing of that cord before the eyes of these living men. It had wrought the death of another man, who, an hour before, had been as full of vigorous life as themselves; some man, equally vigorous, had used it as the instrument of a foul murder. Insignificant in itself, a mere piece of strongly spun and twisted hemp, it was yet singularly suggestive--one man, at any rate, amongst those who stood looking at it, was reminded by it that the murderer who had used it must even now have the fear of another and a stronger cord before him.
"Find who that cord belongs to, and you may get at something," suddenly observed the doctor, glancing at the policemen. "You say it's a butcher's cord?"
The man who had just whispered to Cotherstone nodded.
"It's a pig-killer's cord, sir," he answered. "It's what a pig-killer fastens the pig down with--on the cratch."
"A cratch?--what's that?" asked Brereton, who had gone close to the table to examine the cord, and had seen that, though slender, it was exceedingly strong, and of closely wrought fibre. "Is it a sort of hurdle?"
"That's it, sir," assented the policeman. "It is a sort of hurdle--on four legs. They lay the pig on it, don't you see, and tie it down with a cord of this sort--this cord's been used for that--it's greasy with long use."
"And it has been cut off a longer piece, of course," said the doctor. "These cords are of considerable length, aren't they?"
"Good length, sir--there's a regular coil, like," said the man. He, too, bent down and looked at the length before him. "This has been cut off what you might call recent," he went on, pointing to one end.
"And cut off with a sharp knife, too."
The police sergeant glanced at the doctor as if asking advice on the subject of putting his thoughts into words.
"Well?" said the doctor, with a nod of assent. "Of course, you've got something in your mind, sergeant?"
"Well, there is a man who kills pigs, and has such cords as that, lives close by, doctor," he answered. "You know who I mean--the man they call Gentleman Jack."
"You mean Harborough," said the doctor. "Well--you'd better ask him if he knows anything. Somebody might have stolen one of his cords. But there are other pig-killers in the town, of course."
"Not on this side the town, there aren't," remarked another policeman.
"What is plain," continued the doctor, looking at Cotherstone and the others, "is that Kitely was strangled by this rope, and that everything on him of any value was taken. You'd better find out what he had, or was likely to have, on him, sergeant. Ask the housekeeper."
Miss Pett came from the inner room, where she had already begun her preparations for laying out the body. She was as calm as when Bent first told her of what had occurred, and she stood at the end of the table, the cord between her and her questioners, and showed no emotion, no surprise at what had occurred.
"Can you tell aught about this, ma'am?" asked the sergeant. "You see your master's met his death at somebody's hands, and there's no doubt he's been robbed, too. Do you happen to know what he had on him?"
The housekeeper, who had her arms full of linen, set her burden down on a clothes-horse in front of the fire before she replied. She seemed to be thinking deeply, and when she turned round again, it was to shake her queerly ornamented head.
"Well, I couldn't say exactly," she answered. "But I shouldn't wonder if it was a good deal--for such as him, you know. He did carry money on him--he was never short of money ever since I knew him, and sometimes he'd a fair amount in his pockets--I know, of course, because he'd pull it out, loose gold, and silver, and copper, and I've seen him take bank-notes out of his pocket-book. But he'd be very like to have a good deal more than usual on him tonight."
"Why?" asked the sergeant.
"Because he'd been to the bank this morning to draw his pension money," replied Miss Pett. "I don't know how much that would be, any more than I know where it came from. He was a close man--he'd never tell anybody more than he liked, and he never told me aught about that. But I do know it was what you'd call a fair amount--for a man that lives in a cottage. He went to the bank this noon--he always went once a quarter--and he said this afternoon that he'd go and pay his rent to Mr. Cotherstone there--"
"As he did," muttered Cotherstone, "yes--he did that."
"Well, he'd have all the rest of his money on him," continued the housekeeper. "And he'd have what he had before, because he'd other money coming in than that pension. And I tell you he was the sort of man that carried his money about him--he was foolish that way. And then he'd a very valuable watch and chain--he told me they were a presentation, and cost nearly a hundred pounds. And of course, he'd a pocket-book full of papers."
"This pocket-book?" asked the sergeant.
"Aye, that's it, right enough," assented Miss Pett. "But he always had it bursting with bits of letters and papers. You don't mean to say you found it empty? You did?--very well then, I'm no fool, and I say that if he's been murdered, there's been some reason for it altogether apart from robbing him of what money and things he had on him! Whoever's taken his papers wanted 'em bad!"
"About his habits, now?" said the sergeant, ignoring Miss Pett's suggestion. "Did he go walking on the Shawl every night?"
"Regular as clock-work," answered the housekeeper. "He used to read and write a deal at night--then he'd side away all his books and papers, get his supper, and go out for an hour, walking round and about. Then he'd come in, put on his slippers--there they are, set down to warm for him--smoke one pipe, drink one glass of toddy--there's the stuff for it--and go to bed. He was the regularest man I ever knew, in all he did."
"Was he out longer than usual tonight?" asked Bent, who saw that the sergeant had no more to ask. "You seemed to suggest that, when we came."
"Well, he was a bit longer," admitted Miss Pett. "Of course, he varied. But an hour was about his time. Up and down and about the hill-side he'd go--in and out of the coppices. I've warned him more than once."
"But why?" asked Brereton, whose curiosity was impelling him to take a part in this drama. "What reason had you for warning him?"
Miss Pett turned and looked scrutinizingly at her last questioner. She took a calm and close observation of him and her curious face relaxed into something like a smile.
"I can tell what you are, mister," she said. "A law gentleman! I've seen your sort many a time. And you're a sharp 'un, too! Well--you're young, but you're old enough to have heard a thing or two. Did you never hear that women have got what men haven't--instinct?"
"Do you really tell me that the only reason you had for warning him against going out late at night was--instinct?" asked Brereton. "Come, now!"
"Mostly instinct, anyhow," she answered. "Women have a sort of feeling about things that men haven't--leastways, no men that I've ever met had it. But of course, I'd more than that. Mr. Kitely, now, he was a townsman--a London man. I'm a countrywoman. He didn't understand--you couldn't get him to understand--that it's not safe to go walking in lonely places in country districts like this late at night. When I'd got to know his habits, I expostulated with him more than once. I pointed out to him that in spots like this, where there's naught nearer than them houses at the foot of the hill one way, and Harborough's cottage another way, and both of 'em a good quarter of a mile off, and where there's all these coverts and coppices and rocks, it was not safe for an elderly man who sported a fine gold watch and chain to go wandering about in the darkness. There's always plenty of bad characters in country places who'd knock the King himself on the head for the sake of as much as Mr. Kitely had on him, even if it was no more than the chain which every Tom and Dick could see! And it's turned out just as I prophesied. He's come to it!"
"But you said just now that he must have been murdered for something else than his valuables," said Brereton.
"I said that if his papers were gone, somebody must have wanted them bad," retorted Miss Pett. "Anyway, what's happened is just what I felt might happen, and there he is--dead. And I should be obliged to some of you if you'd send up a woman or two to help me lay him out, for I can't be expected to do everything by myself, nor to stop in this cottage alone, neither!"
Leaving the doctor and a couple of policemen to arrange matters with the housekeeper, the sergeant went outside, followed by the others. He turned to Cotherstone.
"I'm going down to Harborough's cottage, at the other end of the Shawl," he said. "I don't expect to learn aught much there--yet--but I can see if he's at home, anyway. If any of you gentlemen like to come down----"
Bent laid a hand on Cotherstone's arm and turned him in the direction of his house.
"Brereton and I'll go with the sergeant," he said. "You must go home--Lettie'll be anxious about things. Go down with him, Mr. Garthwaite--you'll both hear more later."
To Brereton's great surprise, Cotherstone made no objection to this summary dismissal. He and Garthwaite went off in one direction; the others, led by the observant policeman who had found the empty pocket-book and recognized the peculiar properties of the cord, turned away in another.
"Where's this we're going now?" asked Brereton as he and Bent followed their leaders through the trees and down the slopes of the Shawl.
"To John Harborough's cottage--at the other end of the hill," answered Bent. "He's the man they spoke of in there. He's a queer character--a professional pig-killer, who has other trades as well. He does a bit of rat-catching, and a bit of mole-catching--and a good deal of poaching. In fact, he's an odd person altogether, not only in character but in appearance. And the curious thing is that he's got an exceedingly good-looking and accomplished daughter, a really superior girl who's been well educated and earns her living as a governess in the town. Queer pair they make if you ever see them together!"
"Does she live with him?" asked Brereton.
"Oh yes, she lives with him!" replied Bent. "And I believe that they're very devoted to each other, though everybody marvels that such a man should have such a daughter. There's a mystery about that man--odd character that he is, he's been well bred, and the folk hereabouts call him Gentleman Jack."
"Won't all this give the girl a fright?" suggested Brereton. "Wouldn't it be better if somebody went quietly to the man's cottage?"
But when they came to Harborough's cottage, at the far end of the Shawl, it was all in darkness.
"Still, they aren't gone to bed," suddenly observed the policeman who had a faculty for seeing things. "There's a good fire burning in the kitchen grate, and they wouldn't leave that. Must be out, both of 'em."
"Go in and knock quietly," counselled the sergeant.
He followed the policeman up the flagged walk to the cottage door, and the other two presently went after them. In the starlight Brereton looked round at these new surroundings--an old, thatched cottage, set in a garden amongst trees and shrubs, with a lean-to shed at one end of it, and over everything an atmosphere of silence.
The silence was suddenly broken. A quick, light step sounded on the flagged path behind them, and the policemen turned their lamps in its direction. And Brereton, looking sharply round, became aware of the presence of a girl, who looked at these visitors wonderingly out of a pair of beautiful grey eyes.