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It was only by an immense effort of will that Brereton prevented an exclamation and a start of surprise. But of late he had been perpetually on the look-out for all sorts of unforeseen happenings and he managed to do no more than show a little natural astonishment.
"What, so soon!" he said. "Dear me, old chap!--I didn't think of its being this side of Christmas."
"Cotherstone's set on it," answered Bent. "He seems to be turning into a regular hypochondriac. I hope nothing is really seriously wrong with him. But anyway--this day week. And you'll play your part of best man, of course."
"Oh, of course!" agreed Brereton. "And then--are you going away?"
"Yes, but not for as long as we'd meant," said Bent. "We'll run down to the Riviera for a few weeks--I've made all my arrangements today. Well, any fresh news about this last bad business? This Stoner affair, of course, has upset Cotherstone dreadfully. When is all this mystery coming to an end, Brereton? There is one thing dead certain--Harborough isn't guilty in this case. That is, if Stoner really was killed by the blow they talk of."
But Brereton refused to discuss matters that night. He pleaded fatigue, he had been at it all day long, he said, and his brain was confused and tired and needed rest. And presently he went off to his room--and when he got there he let out a groan of dismay. For one thing was imperative--Bent's marriage must not take place while there was the least chance of a terrible charge being suddenly let loose on Cotherstone.
He rose in the morning with his mind made up on the matter. There was but one course to adopt--and it must be adopted immediately. Cotherstone must be spoken to--Cotherstone must be told of what some people at any rate knew about him and his antecedents. Let him have a chance to explain himself. After all, he might have some explanation. But--and here Brereton's determination became fixed and stern--it must be insisted upon that he should tell Bent everything.
Bent always went out very early in the morning, to give an eye to his business, and he usually breakfasted at his office. That was one of the mornings on which he did not come back to the house, and Brereton accordingly breakfasted alone, and had not seen his host when he, too, set out for the town. He had already decided what to do--he would tell everything to Tallington. Tallington was a middle-aged man of a great reputation for common-sense and for probity; as a native of the town, and a dweller in it all his life, he knew Cotherstone well, and he would give sound advice as to what methods should be followed in dealing with him. And so to Tallington Brereton, arriving just after the solicitor had finished reading his morning's letters, poured out the whole story which he had learned from the ex-detective's scrap-book and from the memorandum made by Stoner in his pocket-book.
Tallington listened with absorbed attention, his face growing graver and graver as Brereton marshalled the facts and laid stress on one point of evidence after another. He was a good listener--a steady, watchful listener--Brereton saw that he was not only taking in every fact and noting every point, but was also weighing up the mass of testimony. And when the story came to its end he spoke with decision, spoke, too, just as Brereton expected he would, making no comment, offering no opinion, but going straight to the really critical thing.
"There are only two things to be done," said Tallington. "They're the only things that can be done. We must send for Bent, and tell him. Then we must get Cotherstone here, and tell him. No other course--none!"
"Bent first?" asked Brereton.
"Certainly! Bent first, by all means. It's due to him. Besides," said Tallington, with a grim smile, "it would be decidedly unpleasant for Cotherstone to compel him to tell Bent, or for us to tell Bent in Cotherstone's presence. And--we'd better get to work at once, Brereton! Otherwise--this will get out in another way."
"You mean--through the police?" said Brereton.
"Surely!" replied Tallington. "This can't be kept in a corner. For anything we know somebody may be at work, raking it all up, just now. Do you suppose that unfortunate lad Stoner kept his knowledge to himself? I don't! No--at once! Come, Bent's office is only a minute away--I'll send one of my clerks for him. Painful, very--but necessary."
The first thing that Bent's eyes encountered when he entered Tallington's private room ten minutes later was the black-bound, brass-clasped scrap-book, which Brereton had carried down with him and had set on the solicitor's desk. He started at the sight of it, and turned quickly from one man to the other.
"What's that doing here?" he asked, "is--have you made some discovery? Why am I wanted?"
Once more Brereton had to go through the story. But his new listener did not receive it in the calm and phlegmatic fashion in which it had been received by the practised ear of the man of law. Bent was at first utterly incredulous; then indignant: he interrupted; he asked questions which he evidently believed to be difficult to answer; he was fighting--and both his companions, sympathizing keenly with him, knew why. But they never relaxed their attitude, and in the end Bent looked from one to the other with a cast-down countenance in which doubt was beginning to change into certainty.
"You're convinced of--all this?" he demanded suddenly. "Both of you? It's your conviction?"
"It's mine," answered Tallington quietly.
"I'd give a good deal for your sake, Bent, if it were not mine," said Brereton. "But--it is mine. I'm--sure!"
Bent jumped from his chair.
"Which of them is it, then?" he exclaimed. "Gad!--you don't mean to say that Cotherstone is--a murderer! Good heavens!--think of what that would mean to--to----"
Tallington got up and laid a hand on Bent's arm.
"We won't say or think anything until we hear what Cotherstone has to say," he said. "I'll step along the street and fetch him, myself. I know he'll be alone just now, because I saw Mallalieu go into the Town Hall ten minutes ago--there's an important committee meeting there this morning over which he has to preside. Pull yourself together, Bent--Cotherstone may have some explanation of everything."
Mallalieu & Cotherstone's office was only a few yards away along the street; Tallington was back from it with Cotherstone in five minutes. And Brereton, looking closely at Cotherstone as he entered and saw who awaited him, was certain that Cotherstone was ready for anything. A sudden gleam of understanding came into his sharp eyes; it was as if he said to himself that here was a moment, a situation, a crisis, which he had anticipated, and--he was prepared. It was an outwardly calm and cool Cotherstone, who, with a quick glance at all three men and at the closed door, took the chair which Tallington handed to him, and turned on the solicitor with a single word.
"As I told you in coming along," said Tallington, "we want to speak to you privately about some information which has been placed in our hands--that is, of course, in Mr. Brereton's and in mine. We have thought it well to already acquaint Mr. Bent with it. All this is between ourselves, Mr. Cotherstone--so treat us as candidly as we'll treat you. I can put everything to you in a few words. They're painful. Are you and your partner, Mr. Mallalieu, the same persons as the Chidforth and Mallows who were prosecuted for fraud at Wilchester Assizes in 1881 and sentenced to two years' imprisonment?"
Cotherstone neither started nor flinched. There was no sign of weakness nor of hesitation about him now. Instead, he seemed to have suddenly recovered all the sharpness and vigour with which two at any rate of the three men who were so intently watching him had always associated with him. He sat erect and watchful in his chair, and his voice became clear and strong.
"Before I answer that question, Mr. Tallington," he said, "I'll ask one of Mr. Bent here. It's this--is my daughter going to suffer from aught that may or may not be raked up against her father? Let me know that!--if you want any words from me."
Bent flushed angrily.
"You ought to know what my answer is!" he exclaimed. "It's no!"
"That'll do!" said Cotherstone. "I know you--you're a man of your word." He turned to Tallington. "Now I'll reply to you," he went on. "My answer's in one word, too. Yes!"
Tallington opened Kitely's scrap-book at the account of the trial at Wilchester, placed it before Cotherstone, and indicated certain lines with the point of a pencil.
"You're the Chidforth mentioned there?" he asked quietly. "And your partner's the Mallows?"
"That's so," replied Cotherstone, so imperturbably that all three looked at him in astonishment "That's quite so, Mr. Tallington."
"And this is an accurate report of what happened?" asked Tallington, trailing the pencil over the newspaper. "That is, as far as you can see at a glance?"
"Oh, I daresay it is," said Cotherstone, airily. "That was the best paper in the town--I daresay it's all right. Looks so, anyway."
"You know that Kitely was present at that trial?" suggested Tallington, who, like Brereton, was beginning to be mystified by Cotherstone's coolness.
"Well," answered Cotherstone, with a shake of his head, "I know now. But I never did know until that afternoon of the day on which the old man was murdered. If you're wanting the truth, he came into our office that afternoon to pay his rent to me, and he told me then. And--if you want more truth--he tried to blackmail me. He was to come next day--at four o'clock--to hear what me and Mallalieu 'ud offer him for hush-money."
"Then you told Mallalieu?" asked Tallington.
"Of course I told him!" replied Cotherstone. "Told him as soon as Kitely had gone. It was a facer for both of us--to be recognized, and to have all that thrown up against us, after thirty years' honest work!"
The three listeners looked silently at each other. A moment of suspence passed. Then Tallington put the question which all three were burning with eagerness to have answered.
"Mr. Cotherstone!--do you know who killed Kitely?"
"No!" answered Cotherstone. "But I know who I think killed him!"
"Who, then?" demanded Tallington.
"The man who killed Bert Stoner," said Cotherstone firmly. "And for the same reason."
"And this man is----"
Tallington left the question unfinished. For Cotherstone's alert face took a new and determined expression, and he raised himself a little in his chair and brought his lifted hand down heavily on the desk at his side.
"Mallalieu!" he exclaimed. "Mallalieu! I believe he killed Kitely. I suspicioned it from the first, and I came certain of it on Sunday night. Why? Because I saw Mallalieu fell Stoner!"
There was a dead silence in the room for a long, painful minute. Tallington broke it at last by repeating Cotherstone's last words.
"You saw Mallalieu fell Stoner? Yourself?"
"With these eyes! Look here!" exclaimed Cotherstone, again bringing his hand down heavily on the desk. "I went up there by Hobwick Quarry on Sunday afternoon--to do a bit of thinking. As I got to that spinney at the edge of the quarry, I saw Mallalieu and our clerk. They were fratching--quarrelling--I could hear 'em as well as see 'em. And I slipped behind a big bush and waited and watched. I could see and hear, even at thirty yards off, that Stoner was maddening Mallalieu, though of course I couldn't distinguish precise words. And all of a sudden Mallalieu's temper went, and he lets out with that heavy oak stick of his and fetches the lad a crack right over his forehead--and with Stoner starting suddenly back the old railings gave way and--down he went. That's what I saw--and I saw Mallalieu kick that stick into the quarry in a passion, and--I've got it!"
"You've got it?" said Tallington.
"I've got it!" repeated Cotherstone. "I watched Mallalieu--after this was over. Once I thought he saw me--but he evidently decided he was alone. I could see he was taking on rarely. He went down to the quarry as it got dusk--he was there some time. Then at last he went away on the opposite side. And I went down when he'd got clear away and I went straight to where the stick was. And as I say, I've got it."
Tallington looked at Brereton, and Brereton spoke for the first time.
"Mr. Cotherstone must see that all this should be told to the police," he said.
"Wait a bit," replied Cotherstone. "I've not done telling my tales here yet. Now that I am talking, I will talk! Bent!" he continued, turning to his future son-in-law. "What I'm going to say now is for your benefit. But these lawyers shall hear. This old Wilchester business has been raked up--how, I don't know. Now then, you shall all know the truth about that! I did two years--for what? For being Mallalieu's catspaw!"
Tallington suddenly began to drum his fingers on the blotting-pad which lay in front of him. From this point he watched Cotherstone with an appearance of speculative interest which was not lost on Brereton.
"Ah!" he remarked quietly. "You were Mallalieu's--or Mallows'--catspaw? That is--he was the really guilty party in the Wilchester affair, of Which that's an account?"
"Doesn't it say here that he was treasurer?" retorted Cotherstone, laying his hand on the open scrap-book. "He was--he'd full control of the money. He drew me into things--drew me into 'em in such a clever way that when the smash came I couldn't help myself. I had to go through with it. And I never knew until--until the two years was over--that Mallalieu had that money safely put away."
"But--you got to know, eventually," remarked Tallington. "And--I suppose--you agreed to make use of it?"
Cotherstone smote the table again.
"Yes!" he said with some heat. "And don't you get any false ideas, Mr. Tallington. Bent!--I've paid that money back--I, myself. Each penny of it--two thousand pound, with four per cent. interest for thirty years! I've done it--Mallalieu knows naught about it. And here's the receipt. So now then!"
"When did you pay it, Mr. Cotherstone?" asked Tallington, as Bent unwillingly took the paper which Cotherstone drew from a pocket-book and handed to him. "Some time ago, or lately?"
"If you want to know," retorted Cotherstone, "it was the very day after old Kitely was killed. I sent it through a friend of mine who still lives in Wilchester. I wanted to be done with it--I didn't want to have it brought up against me that anybody lost aught through my fault. And so--I paid."
"But--I'm only suggesting--you could have paid a long time before that, couldn't you?" said Tallington. "The longer you waited, the more you had to pay. Two thousand pounds, with thirty years' interest, at four per cent.--why, that's four thousand four hundred pounds altogether!"
"That's what he paid," said Bent. "Here's the receipt.
"Mr. Cotherstone is telling us--privately--everything," remarked Tallington, glancing at the receipt and passing it on to Brereton. "I wish he'd tell us--privately, as I say--why he paid that money the day after Kitely's murder. Why, Mr. Cotherstone?"
Cotherstone, ready enough to answer and to speak until then, flushed angrily and shook his head. But he was about to speak when a gentle tap came at Tallington's door, and before the solicitor could make any response, the door was opened from without, and the police-superintendent walked in, accompanied by two men whom Brereton recognized as detectives from Norcaster.
"Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Tallington," said the superintendent, "but I heard Mr. Cotherstone was here. Mr. Cotherstone!--I shall have to ask you to step across with me to the office. Will you come over now?--it'll be best."
"Not until I know what I'm wanted for," answered Cotherstone determinedly. "What is it?"
The superintendent sighed and shook his head.
"Very well--it's not my fault, then," he answered. "The fact is we want both you and Mr. Mallalieu for this Stoner affair. That's the plain truth! The warrants were issued an hour ago--and we've got Mr. Mallalieu already. Come on, Mr. Cotherstone!--there's no help for it."
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