The Borough Treasurer by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter IX. Antecedents
During the interval which elapsed between these early morning proceedings and the bringing up of Harborough before the borough magistrates in a densely-packed court, Brereton made up his mind as to what he would do. He would act on Avice Harborough's suggestion, and, while watching the trend of affairs on behalf of the suspected man, would find out all he could about the murdered one. At that moment--so far as Brereton knew--there was only one person in Highmarket who was likely to know anything about Kitely: that person, of course, was the queer-looking housekeeper. He accordingly determined, even at that early stage of the proceedings, to have Miss Pett in the witness-box.
Harborough, who had been formally arrested and charged by the police after the conversation at the police-station, was not produced in court until eleven o'clock, by which time the whole town and neighbourhood were astir with excitement. Somewhat to Brereton's surprise, the prosecuting counsel, who had been hastily fetched from Norcaster and instructed on the way, went more fully into the case than was usual. Brereton had expected that the police would ask for an adjournment after the usual evidence of the superficial facts, and of the prisoner's arrest, had been offered; instead of that, the prosecution brought forward several witnesses, and amongst them the bank-manager, who said that when he cashed Kitely's draft for him the previous morning, in Harborough's presence, he gave Kitely the one half of the money in gold. The significance of this evidence immediately transpired: a constable succeeded the bank-manager and testified that after searching the prisoner after his arrest he found on him over twenty pounds in sovereigns and half-sovereigns, placed in a wash-leather bag.
Brereton immediately recognized the impression which this evidence made. He saw that it weighed with the half-dozen solid and slow-thinking men who sat on one side or the other of Mallalieu on the magisterial bench; he felt the atmosphere of suspicion which it engendered in the court. But he did nothing: he had already learned sufficient from Avice in a consultation with her and Bent's solicitor to know that it would be very easy to prove to a jury that it was no unusual thing for Harborough to carry twenty or thirty pounds in gold on him. Of all these witnesses Brereton asked scarcely anything--but he made it clear that when Harborough was met near his cottage at daybreak that morning by two constables who informed him of what had happened, he expressed great astonishment, jeered at the notion that he had had anything to do with the murder, and, without going on to his own door, offered voluntarily to walk straight to the police-station.
But when Miss Pett--who had discarded her red and yellow turban, and appeared in rusty black garments which accentuated the old-ivory tint of her remarkable countenance--had come into the witness-box and answered a few common-place questions as to the dead man's movements on the previous evening, Brereton prepared himself for the episode which he knew to be important. Amidst a deep silence--something suggesting to everybody that Mr. Bent's sharp-looking London friend was about to get at things--he put his first question to Miss Pett.
"How long have you known Mr. Kitely?"
"Ever since I engaged with him as his housekeeper," answered Miss Pett.
"How long since is that?" asked Brereton.
"Nine to ten years--nearly ten."
"You have been with him, as housekeeper, nearly ten years--continuously?"
"Never left him since I first came to him."
"Where did you first come to him--where did he live then?"
"Yes--and where, in London?"
"83, Acacia Grove, Camberwell."
"You lived with Mr. Kitely at 83, Acacia Grove, Camberwell, from the time you became his housekeeper until now--nearly ten years in all. So we may take it that you knew Mr. Kitely very well indeed?"
"As well as anybody could know--him," replied Miss Pett, grimly. "He wasn't the sort that's easy to know."
"Still, you knew him for ten years. Now," continued Brereton, concentrating his gaze on Miss Pett's curious features, "who and what was Mr. Kitely?"
Miss Pett drummed her black-gloved fingers on the edge of the witness-box and shook her head.
"I don't know," she answered. "I never have known.
"But you must have some idea, some notion--after ten years' acquaintanceship! Come now. What did he do with himself in London? Had he no business?"
"He had business," said Miss Pett. "He was out most of the day at it. I don't know what it was."
"Never mentioned it to you?"
"Never in his life."
"Did you gain no idea of it? For instance, did it take him out at regular hours?"
"No, it didn't. Sometimes he'd go out very early--sometimes late--some days he never went out at all. And sometimes he'd be out at night--and away for days together. I never asked him anything, of course."
"Whatever it was, he retired from it eventually?"
"Yes--just before we came here."
"Do you know why Mr. Kitely came here?"
"Well," said Miss Pett, "he'd always said he wanted a nice little place in the country, and preferably in the North. He came up this way for a holiday some months since, and when he got back he said he'd found just the house and neighbourhood to suit him, so, of course, we removed here."
"And you have been here--how long?"
"Just over three months."
Brereton let a moment or two elapse before he asked his next question, which was accompanied by another searching inspection of the witness.
"Do you know anything about Mr. Kitely's relations?"
"No!" answered Miss Pett. "And for a simple reason. He always said he had none."
"He was never visited by anybody claiming to be a relation?"
"Not during the ten years I knew him."
"Do you think he had property--money--to leave to anybody?"
Miss Pett began to toy with the fur boa which depended from her thin neck.
"Well--yes, he said he had," she replied hesitatingly.
"Did you ever hear him say what would become of it at his death?"
Miss Pett looked round the court and smiled a little.
"Well," she answered, still more hesitatingly, "he--he always said that as he'd no relations of his own, he'd leave it to me."
Brereton leaned a little closer across the table towards the witness-box and dropped his voice.
"Do you know if Mr. Kitely ever made a will?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Miss Pett. "He did."
"Just before we left London."
"Do you know the contents of that will?"
"No!" said Miss Pett. "I do not--so there!"
"Did you witness it?"
"No, I didn't."
"Do you know where it is?"
"Yes, I know that."
"Where is it?"
"My nephew has it," replied Miss Pett. "He's a solicitor, and he made it."
"What is your nephew's name and address?" asked Brereton.
"Mr. Christopher Pett, 23B Cursitor Street," answered Miss Pett, readily enough.
"Have you let him know of Mr. Kitely's death?"
"Yes. I sent him a telegram first thing this morning."
"Asking him to bring the will?"
"No, I did not!" exclaimed Miss Pett, indignantly. "I never mentioned the will. Mr. Kitely was very fond of my nephew--he considered him a very clever young man."
"We shall, no doubt, have the pleasure of seeing your nephew," remarked Brereton. "Well, now, I want to ask you a question or two about yourself. What had you been before you became housekeeper to Mr. Kitely?"
"Housekeeper to another gentleman!" replied Miss Pett, acidly.
"Who was he?"
"Well, if you want to know, he was a Major Stilman, a retired officer--though what that has----"
"Where did Major Stilman live?" asked Brereton.
"He lived at Kandahar Cottage, Woking," replied Miss Pett, who was now showing signs of rising anger. "But----"
"Answer my questions, if you please, and don't make remarks," said Brereton. "Is Major Stilman alive?"
"No, he isn't--he's dead this ten years," answered Miss Pett. "And if you're going to ask me any more questions about who and what I am, young man, I'll save you the trouble. I was with Major Stilman a many years, and before that I was store-keeper at one London hotel, and linen-keeper at another, and before that I lived at home with my father, who was a respectable farmer in Sussex. And what all this has to do with what we're here for, I should like----"
"Just give me the names of the two hotels you were at in London, will you?" asked Brereton.
"One was the Royal Belvedere in Bayswater, and the other the Mervyn Crescent in Kensington," replied Miss Pett. "Highly respectable, both of 'em."
"And you come originally from--where in Sussex?"
"Oakbarrow Farm, near Horsham. Do you want to know any----"
"I shan't trouble you much longer," said Brereton suavely. "But you might just tell me this--has Mr. Kitely ever had any visitors since he came to Highmarket?"
"Only one," answered Miss Pett. "And it was my nephew, who came up for a week-end to see him on business. Of course, I don't know what the business was. Mr. Kitely had property in London; house-property, and----"
"And your nephew, as his solicitor, no doubt came to see him about it," interrupted Brereton. "Thank you, Miss Pett--I don't want to trouble you any more."
He sat down as the housekeeper left the witness-box--confident that he had succeeded in introducing a new atmosphere into the case. Already there were whisperings going on in the crowded court; he felt that these country folk, always quick to form suspicions, were beginning to ask themselves if there was not something dark and sinister behind the mystery of Kitely's murder, and he was callous enough--from a purely professional standpoint--to care nothing if they began to form ideas about Miss Pett. For Brereton knew that nothing is so useful in the breaking-down of one prejudice as to set up another, and his great object just then was to divert primary prejudice away from his client. Nevertheless, nothing, he knew well, could at that stage prevent Harborough's ultimate committal--unless Harborough himself chose to prove the alibi of which he had boasted. But Harborough refused to do anything towards that, and when the case had been adjourned for a week, and the prisoner removed to a cell pending his removal to Norcaster gaol, a visit from Brereton and Avice in company failed to move him.
"It's no good, my girl; it's no good, sir," he said, when both had pleaded with him to speak. "I'm determined! I shall not say where I was last night."
"Tell me--in secret--and then leave me to make use of the knowledge, also in secret," urged Brereton.
"No, sir--once for all, no!" answered Harborough. "There's no necessity. I may be kept locked up for a bit, but the truth about this matter'll come out before ever I'm brought to trial--or ought to be. Leave me alone--I'm all right. All that bothers me now, my girl, is--you!"
"Then don't bother," said Avice. "I'm going to stay with Mrs. Northrop. They've insisted on it."
Brereton was going out of the cell, leaving father and daughter together, when he suddenly turned back.
"You're a man of sense, Harborough," he said. "Come, now--have you got anything to suggest as to how you can be helped?"
Harborough smiled and gave his counsel a knowing look.
"Aye, sir!" he answered. "The best suggestion you could get. If you want to find out who killed Kitely--go back! Go back, sir--go inch by inch, through Kitely's life!"