The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter VIII. Retained for the Defence
Instead of replying to the policeman by word or movement, Mallalieu glanced at Cotherstone. There was a curious suggestion in that glance which Cotherstone did not like. He was already angry; Mallalieu's inquiring look made him still angrier.
"Like to come?" asked Mallalieu, laconically.
"No!" answered Cotherstone, turning towards the office. "It's naught to me."
He disappeared within doors, and Mallalieu walked out of the yard into the High Street--to run against Bent and Brereton, who were hurrying in the direction of the police-station, in company with another constable.
"Ah!" said Mallalieu as they met. "So you've heard, too, I suppose? Heard that Harborough's been taken, I mean. Now, how was he taken?" he went on, turning to the policeman who had summoned him. "And when, and where?--let's be knowing about it."
"He wasn't taken, your Worship," replied the man. "Leastways, not in what you'd call the proper way. He came back to his house half an hour or so ago--when it was just getting nicely light--and two of our men that were there told him what was going on, and he appeared to come straight down with them. He says he knows naught, your Worship."
"That's what you'd expect," remarked Mallalieu, drily. "He'd be a fool if he said aught else."
He put his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, and, followed by the others, strolled into the police-station as if he were dropping in on business of trifling importance. And there was nothing to be seen there which betokened that a drama of life and death was being constructed in that formal-looking place of neutral-coloured walls, precise furniture, and atmosphere of repression. Three or four men stood near the superintendent's desk; a policeman was writing slowly and laboriously on a big sheet of blue paper at a side-table, a woman was coaxing a sluggish fire to burn.
"The whole thing's ridiculous!" said a man's scornful voice. "It shouldn't take five seconds to see that."
Brereton instinctively picked out the speaker. That was Harborough, of course--the tall man who stood facing the others and looking at them as if he wondered how they could be as foolish as he evidently considered them to be. He looked at this man with great curiosity. There was certainly something noticeable about him, he decided. A wiry, alert, keen-eyed man, with good, somewhat gipsy-like features, much tanned by the weather, as if he were perpetually exposed to sun and wind, rain and hail; sharp of movement, evidently of more than ordinary intelligence, and, in spite of his rough garments and fur cap, having an indefinable air of gentility and breeding about him. Brereton had already noticed the pitch and inflection of his voice; now, as Harborough touched his cap to the Mayor, he noticed that his hands, though coarsened and weather-browned, were well-shaped and delicate. Something about him, something in his attitude, the glance of his eye, seemed to indicate that he was the social superior of the policemen, uniformed or plain-clothed, who were watching him with speculative and slightly puzzled looks.
"Well, and what's all this, now?" said Mallalieu coming to a halt and looking round. "What's he got to say, like?"
The superintendent looked at Harborough and nodded. And Harborough took that nod at its true meaning, and he spoke--readily.
"This!" he said, turning to the new-comers, and finally addressing himself to Mallalieu. "And it's what I've already said to the superintendent here. I know nothing about what's happened to Kitely. I know no more of his murder than you do--not so much, I should say--for I know naught at all beyond what I've been told. I left my house at eight o'clock last night--I've been away all night--I got back at six o'clock this morning. As soon as I heard what was afoot, I came straight here. I put it to you, Mr. Mayor--if I'd killed this old man, do you think I'd have come back? Is it likely?"
"You might ha' done, you know," answered Mallalieu. "There's no accounting for what folks will do--in such cases. But--what else? Say aught you like--it's all informal, this."
"Very well," continued Harborough. "They tell me the old man was strangled by a piece of cord that was evidently cut off one of my coils. Now, is there any man in his common senses would believe that if I did that job, I should leave such a bit of clear evidence behind me? I'm not a fool!"
"You might ha' been interrupted before you could take that cord off his neck," suggested Mallalieu.
"Aye--but you'd have to reckon up the average chances of that!" exclaimed Harborough, with a sharp glance at the bystanders. "And the chances are in my favour. No, sir!--whoever did this job, cut that length of cord off my coil, which anybody could get at, and used it to throw suspicion on me! That's the truth--and you'll find it out some day, whatever happens now."
Mallalieu exchanged glances with the superintendent and then faced Harborough squarely, with an air of inviting confidence.
"Now, my lad!" he said, almost coaxingly. "There's a very simple thing to do, and it'll clear this up as far as you're concerned. Just answer a plain question. Where ha' you been all night?"
A tense silence fell--broken by the crackling of the wood in the grate, which the charwoman had at last succeeded in stirring into a blaze, and by the rattling of the fire-irons which she now arranged in the fender. Everybody was watching the suspected man, and nobody as keenly as Brereton. And Brereton saw that a deadlock was at hand. A strange look of obstinacy and hardness came into Harborough's eyes, and he shook his head.
"No!" he answered. "I shan't say! The truth'll come out in good time without that. It's not necessary for me to say. Where I was during the night is my business--nobody else's."
"You'll not tell?" asked Mallalieu.
"I shan't tell," replied Harborough.
"You're in danger, you know," said Mallalieu.
"In your opinion," responded Harborough, doggedly. "Not in mine! There's law in this country. You can arrest me, if you like--but you'll have your work set to prove that I killed yon old man. No, sir! But----" here he paused, and looking round him, laughed almost maliciously "--but I'll tell you what I'll do," he went on. "I'll tell you this, if it'll do you any good--if I liked to say the word, I could prove my innocence down to the ground! There!"
"And you won't say that word?" asked Mallalieu.
"I shan't! Why? Because it's not necessary. Why!" demanded Harborough, laughing with an expresssion of genuine contempt. "What is there against me? Naught! As I say, there's law in this country--there's such a thing as a jury. Do you believe that any jury would convict a man on what you've got? It's utter nonsense!"
The constable who had come down from the Shawl with Bent and Brereton had for some time been endeavouring to catch the eye of the superintendent. Succeeding in his attempts at last, he beckoned that official into a quiet corner of the room, and turning his back on the group near the fireplace, pulled something out of his pocket. The two men bent over it, and the constable began to talk in whispers.
Mallalieu meanwhile was eyeing Harborough in his stealthy, steady fashion. He looked as if he was reckoning him up.
"Well, my lad," he observed at last. "You're making a mistake. If you can't or won't tell what you've been doing with yourself between eight last night and six this morning, why, then----"
The superintendent came back, holding something in his hand. He, too, looked at Harborough.
"Will you hold up your left foot?--turn the sole up," he asked. "Just to see--something."
Harborough complied, readily, but with obvious scornful impatience. And when he had shown the sole of the left foot, the superintendent opened his hand and revealed a small crescent-shaped bit of bright steel.
"That's off the toe of your boot, Harborough," he said. "You know it is! And it's been picked up--just now, as it were--where this affair happened. You must have lost it there during the last few hours, because it's quite bright--not a speck of rust on it, you see. What do you say to that, now?"
"Naught!" retorted Harborough, defiantly. "It is mine, of course--I noticed it was working loose yesterday. And if it was picked up in that wood, what then? I passed through there last night on my way to--where I was going. God--you don't mean to say you'd set a man's life on bits o'things like that!"
Mallalieu beckoned the superintendent aside and talked with him. Almost at once he himself turned away and left the room, and the superintendent came back to the group by the fireplace.
"Well, there's no help for it, Harborough," he said. "We shall have to detain you--and I shall have to charge you, presently. It can't be helped--and I hope you'll be able to clear yourself."
"I expected nothing else," replied Harborough. "I'm not blaming you--nor anybody. Mr. Bent," he continued, turning to where Bent and Brereton stood a little apart. "I'd be obliged to you if you'd do something for me. Go and tell my daughter about this, if you please! You see, I came straight down here--I didn't go into my house when I got back. If you'd just step up and tell her--and bid her not be afraid--there's naught to be afraid of, as she'll find--as everybody'll find."
"Certainly," said Bent. "I'll go at once." He tapped Brereton on the arm, and led him out into the street. "Well?" he asked, when they were outside. "What do you think of that, now?"
"That man gives one all the suggestion of innocence," remarked Brereton, thoughtfully, "and from a merely superficial observation of him, I, personally, should say he is innocent. But then, you know, I've known the most hardened and crafty criminals assume an air of innocence, and keep it up, to the very end. However, we aren't concerned about that just now--the critical point here, for Harborough, at any rate, is the evidence against him."
"And what do you think of that?" asked Bent.
"There's enough to warrant his arrest," answered Brereton, "and he'll be committed on it, and he'll go for trial. All that's certain--unless he's a sensible man, and tells what he was doing with himself between eight and ten o'clock last night."
"Ah, and why doesn't he?" said Bent. "He must have some good reason. I wonder if his daughter can persuade him?"
"Isn't that his daughter coming towards us?" inquired Brereton.
Bent glanced along the road and saw Avice Harborough at a little distance, hastening in their direction and talking earnestly to a middle-aged man who was evidently listening with grave concern to what she said.
"Yes, that's she," he replied, "and that's Northrop with her--the man that Mallalieu was playing cards with last night. She's governess to Northrop's two younger children--I expect she's heard about her father, and has been to get Northrop to come down with her--he's a magistrate."
Avice listened with ill-concealed impatience while Bent delivered his message. He twice repeated Harborough's injunction that she was not to be afraid, and her impatience increased.
"I'm not afraid," she answered. "That is, afraid of nothing but my father's obstinacy! I know him. And I know that if he's said he won't tell anything about his whereabouts last night, he won't! And if you want to help him--as you seem to do--you must recognize that."
"Wouldn't he tell you?" suggested Brereton.
The girl shook her head.
"Once or twice a year," she answered, "he goes away for a night, like that, and I never know--never have known--where he goes. There's some mystery about it--I know there is. He won't tell--he'll let things go to the last, and even then he won't tell. You won't be able to help him that way--there's only one way you can help."
"What way?" asked Bent.
"Find the murderer!" exclaimed Avice with a quick flash of her eyes in Brereton's direction. "My father is as innocent as I am--find the man who did it and clear him that way. Don't wait for what these police people do--they'll waste time over my father. Do something! They're all on the wrong track--let somebody get on the right one!"
"She's right!" said Northrop, a shrewd-faced little man, who looked genuinely disturbed. "You know what police are, Mr. Bent--if they get hold of one notion they're deaf to all others. While they're concentrating on Harborough, you know, the real man'll be going free--laughing in his sleeve, very like."
"But--what are we to do?" asked Bent. "What are we to start on?"
"Find out about Kitely himself!" exclaimed Avice. "Who knows anything about him? He may have had enemies--he may have been tracked here. Find out if there was any motive!" She paused and looked half appealingly, half-searchingly at Brereton. "I heard you're a barrister--a clever one," she went on, hesitating a little. "Can't--can't you suggest anything?"
"There's something I'll suggest at once," responded Brereton impulsively. "Whatever else is done, your father's got to be defended. I'll defend him--to the best of my ability--if you'll let me--and at no cost to him."
"Well spoken, sir!" exclaimed Northrop. "That's the style!"
"But we must keep to legal etiquette," continued Brereton, smiling at the little man's enthusiasm. "You must go to a solicitor and tell him to instruct me--it's a mere form. Mr. Bent will take you to his solicitor, and he'll see me. Then I can appear in due form when they bring your father before the magistrates. Look here, Bent," he went on, wishing to stop any expression of gratitude from the girl, "you take Miss Harborough to your solicitor--if he isn't up, rouse him out. Tell him what I propose to do, and make an appointment with him for me. Now run along, both of you--I want to speak to this gentleman a minute."
He took Northrop's arm, turned him in the direction of the Shawl, walked him a few paces, and then asked him a direct question.
"Now, what do you know of this man Harborough?"
"He's a queer chap--a mystery man, sir," answered Northrop. "A sort of jack-of-all-trades. He's a better sort--you'd say, to hear him talk, he'd been a gentleman. You can see what his daughter is--he educated her well. He's means of some sort--apart from what he earns. Yes, there's some mystery about that man, sir--but I'll never believe he did this job. No, sir!"
"Then we must act on the daughter's suggestion and find out who did," observed Brereton. "There is as much mystery about that as about Harborough."
"All mystery, sir!" agreed Northrop. "It's odd--I came through them woods on the Shawl there about a quarter to ten last night: I'd been across to the other side to see a man of mine that's poorly in bed. Now, I never heard aught, never saw aught--but then, it's true I was hurrying--I'd made an appointment for a hand at whist with the Mayor at my house at ten o'clock, and I thought I was late. I never heard a sound--not so much as a dead twig snap! But then, it would ha' been before that--at some time."
"Yes, at some time," agreed Brereton. "Well,--I'll see you in court, no doubt."
He turned back, and followed Bent and Avice at a distance, watching them thoughtfully.
"At some time?" he mused. "Um! Well, I'm now conversant with the movements of two inhabitants of Highmarket at a critical period of last night. Mallalieu didn't go to cards with Northrop until ten o'clock, and at ten o'clock Cotherstone returned to his house after being absent--one hour."