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ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER
Although Stoner hailed from Darlington, he had no folk of his own left there--they were all dead and gone. Accordingly he put himself up at a cheap hotel, and when he had taken what its proprietors called a meat tea, he strolled out and made for that part of the town in which his friend Myler had set up housekeeping in a small establishment wherein there was just room for a couple of people to turn round. Its accommodation, indeed, was severely taxed just then, for Myler's father and mother-in-law had come to visit him and their daughter, and when Stoner walked in on the scene and added a fifth the tiny parlour was filled to its full extent.
"Who'd ha' thought of seeing you, Stoner!" exclaimed Myler joyously, when he had welcomed his old chum, and had introduced him to the family circle. "And what brings you here, anyway? Business?"
"Just a bit of business," answered Stoner. "Nothing much, though--only a call to make, later on. I'm stopping the night, though."
"Wish we could ha' put you up here, old sport!" said Myler, ruefully. "But we don't live in a castle, yet. All full here!--unless you'd like a shakedown on the kitchen table, or in the wood-shed. Or you can try the bath, if you like."
Amidst the laughter which succeeded this pleasantry, Stoner said that he wouldn't trouble the domestic peace so far--he'd already booked his room. And while Myler--who, commercial-traveller like, cultivated a reputation for wit--indulged in further jokes, Stoner stealthily inspected the father-in-law. What a fortunate coincidence! he said to himself; what a lucky stroke! There he was, wanting badly to find out something about Wilchester--and here, elbow to elbow with him, was a Wilchester man! And an elderly Wilchester man, too--one who doubtless remembered all about Wilchester for many a long year. That was another piece of luck, for Stoner was quite certain that if Cotherstone had ever had any connexion with Wilchester it must have been a long, long time ago: he knew, from information acquired, that Cotherstone had been a fixture in Highmarket for thirty years.
He glanced at Myler's father-in-law again as Myler, remarking that when old friends meet, the flowing bowl must flow, produced a bottle of whisky from a brand-new chiffonier, and entreated his bride to fetch what he poetically described as the crystal goblets and the sparkling stream. The father-in-law was a little apple-faced old gentleman with bright eyes and a ready smile, who evidently considered his son-in-law a born wit, and was ready to laugh at all his sallies. A man of good memory, that, decided Stoner, and wondered how he could diplomaticaly lead Mr. Pursey to talk about the town he came from. But Mr. Pursey was shortly to talk about Wilchester to some purpose--and with no drawing-out from Stoner or anybody.
"Well," remarked Myler, having supplied his guests with spirituous refreshment, and taken a pull at his own glass. "I'm glad to see you, Stoner, and so's the missis, and here's hoping you'll come again as often as the frog went to the water. You've been having high old times in that back-of-beyond town of yours, haven't you? Battles, murders, sudden deaths!--who'd ha' thought a slow old hill-country town like Highmarket could have produced so much excitement! What's happened to that chap they collared?--I haven't had time to look at the papers this last day or two--been too busy."
"Committed for trial," answered Stoner. "He'll come up at Norcaster Assizes next month."
"Do they think he did it?" asked Myler. "Is it a sure thing?"
Before Stoner could reply Mr. Pursey entered the arena. His face displayed the pleased expression of the man who has special information.
"It's an odd thing, now, David," he said in a high, piping voice, "a very odd thing, that this should happen when I come up into these parts--almost as foreign to me as the Fiji Islands might be. Yes, sir," he went on, turning to Stoner, "it's very odd! I knew that man Kitely."
Stoner could have jumped from his seat, but he restrained himself, and contrived to show no more than a polite interest.
"Oh, indeed, sir?" he said. "The poor man that was murdered? You knew him?"
"I remember him very well indeed," assented Mr. Pursey. "Yes, although I only met him once, I've a very complete recollection of the man. I spent a very pleasant evening with him and one or two more of his profession--better sort of police and detectives, you know--at a friend's of mine, who was one of our Wilchester police officials--oh, it's--yes--it must be thirty years since. They'd come from London, of course, on some criminal business. Deary me!--the tales them fellows could tell!"
"Thirty years is a long time, sir," observed Stoner politely.
"Aye, but I remember it quite well," said Mr. Pursey, with a confident nod. "I know it was thirty years ago, 'cause it was the Wilchester Assizes at which the Mallows & Chidforth case was tried. Yes--thirty years. Eighteen hundred and eighty-one was the year. Mallows & Chidforth--aye!"
"Famous case that, sir?" asked Stoner. He was almost bursting with excitement by that time, and he took a big gulp of whisky and water to calm himself. "Something special, sir? Murder, eh?"
"No--fraud, embezzlement, defalcation--I forget what the proper legal term 'ud be," replied Mr. Pursey. "But it was a bad case--a real bad 'un. We'd a working men's building society in Wilchester in those days--it's there now for that matter, but under another name--and there were two better-class young workmen, smart fellows, that acted one as secretary and t'other as treasurer to it. They'd full control, those two had, and they were trusted, aye, as if they'd been the Bank of England! And all of a sudden, something came out, and it was found that these two, Mallows, treasurer, Chidforth, secretary, had made away with two thousand pounds of the society's money. Two thousand pounds!"
"Two thousand pounds?" exclaimed Stoner, whose thoughts went like lightning to the half-sheet of foolscap. "You don't say!"
"Yes--well, it might ha' been a pound or two more or less," said the old man, "but two thousand was what they called it. And of course Mallows and Chidforth were prosecuted--and they got two years. Oh, yes, we remember that case very well indeed in Wilchester, don't we, Maria?"
"And good reason!" agreed Mrs. Pursey warmly. "There were a lot of poor people nearly ruined by them bad young men."
"There were!" affirmed Mr. Pursey. "Yes--oh, yes! Aye--I've often wondered what became of 'em--Mallows and Chidforth, I mean. For from the time they got out of prison they've never been heard of in our parts. Not a word!--they disappeared completely. Some say, of course, that they had that money safely planted, and went to it. I don't know. But--off they went."
"Pooh!" said Myler. "That's an easy one. Went off to some colony or other, of course. Common occurrence, father-in-law. Bert, old sport, what say if we rise on our pins and have a hundred at billiards at the Stag and Hunter--good table there."
Stoner followed his friend out of the little house, and once outside took him by the arm.
"Confound the billards, Dave, old man!" he said, almost trembling with suppressed excitement. "Look here!--d'you know a real quiet corner in the Stag where we can have an hour's serious consultation. You do?--then come on, and I'll tell you the most wonderful story you ever heard since your ears were opened!"
Myler, immediately impressed, led the way into a small and vacant parlour in the rear of a neighbouring hostelry, ordered refreshments, bade the girl who brought them to leave him and his friend alone, and took the liberty of locking the door on their privacy. And that done he showed himself such a perfect listener that he never opened his lips until Stoner had set forth everything before him in detail. Now and then he nodded, now and then his sharp eyes dilated, now and then he clapped his hands. And in the end he smote Stoner on the shoulder.
"Stoner, old sport!" he exclaimed. "It's a sure thing! Gad, I never heard a clearer. That five hundred is yours--aye, as dead certain as that my nose is mine! It's--it's--what they call inductive reasoning. The initials M. and C.--Mallows and Chidforth--Mallalieu and Cotherstone--the two thousand pounds--the fact that Kitely was at Wilchester Assizes in 1881--that he became Cotherstone's tenant thirty years after--oh, I see it all, and so will a judge and jury! Stoner, one, or both of 'em killed that old chap to silence him!"
"That's my notion," assented Stoner, who was highly pleased with himself, and by that time convinced that his own powers, rather than a combination of lucky circumstances, had brought the desired result about. "Of course, I've worked it out to that. And the thing now is--what's the best line to take? What would you suggest, Dave?"
Myler brought all his business acumen to bear on the problem presented to him.
"What sort of chap is this Tallington?" he asked at last, pointing to the name at the foot of the reward handbill.
"Most respectable solicitor in Highmarket," answered Stoner, promptly.
"Word good?" asked Myler.
"Good as--gold," affirmed Stoner.
"Then if it was me," said Myler, "I should make a summary of what I knew, on paper--carefully--and I should get a private interview with this Tallington and tell him--all. Man!--you're safe of that five hundred! For there's no doubt, Stoner, on the evidence, no doubt whatever!"
Stoner sat silently reflecting things for a while. Then he gave his friend a sly, somewhat nervous look. Although he and Myler had been bosom friends since they were breeched, Stoner was not quite certain as to what Myler would say to what he, Stoner, was just then thinking of.
"Look here," he said suddenly. "There's this about it. It's all jolly well, but a fellow's got to think for himself, Dave, old man. Now it doesn't matter a twopenny cuss to me about old Kitely--I don't care if he was scragged twice over--I've no doubt he deserved it. But it'll matter a lot to M. & C. if they're found out. I can touch that five hundred easy as winking--but--you take my meaning?--I daresay M. & C. 'ud run to five thousand if I kept my tongue still. What?"
But Stoner knew at once that Myler disapproved. The commercial traveller's homely face grew grave, and he shook his head with an unmistakable gesture.
"No, Stoner," he said. "None o' that! Play straight, my lad! No hush-money transactions. Keep to the law, Stoner, keep to the law! Besides, there's others than you can find all this out. What you want to do is to get in first. See Tallington as soon as you get back."
"I daresay you're right," admitted Stoner. "But--I know M. & C, and I know they'd give--aye, half of what they're worth--and that's a lot!--to have this kept dark."
That thought was with him whenever he woke in the night, and as he strolled round Darlington next morning, it was still with him when, after an early dinner, he set off homeward by an early afternoon train which carried him to High Gill junction; whence he had to walk five miles across the moors and hills to Highmarket. And he was still pondering it weightily when, in one of the loneliest parts of the solitudes which he was crossing, he turning the corner of a little pine wood, and came face to face with Mallalieu.
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