Chapter 26




THE VIRTUES OF SUSPICION


During that week Mallalieu was to learn by sad experience that it is a very poor thing to acquire information at second hand. There he was, a strictly-guarded--if a cosseted and pampered--prisoner, unable to put his nose outside the cottage, and entirely dependent on Chris Pett for any and all news of the world which lay so close at hand and was just then so deeply and importantly interesting to him. Time hung very heavily on his hands. There were books enough on the shelves of his prison-parlour, but the late Kitely's taste had been of a purely professional nature, and just then Mallalieu had no liking for murder cases, criminal trials, and that sort of gruesomeness. He was constantly asking for newspapers, and was skilfully put off--it was not within Christopher's scheme of things to let Mallalieu get any accurate notion of what was really going on. Miss Pett did not take in a newspaper; Christopher invariably forgot to bring one in when he went to the town; twice, being pressed by Mallalieu to remember, he brought back The Times of the day before--wherein, of course, Mallalieu failed to find anything about himself. And it was about himself that he so wanted to hear, about how things were, how people talked of him, what the police said, what was happening generally, and his only source of information was Chris.

Mr. Pett took good care to represent everything in his own fashion. He was assiduous in assuring Mallalieu that he was working in his interest with might and main; jealous in proclaiming his own and his aunt's intention to get him clear away to Norcaster. But he also never ceased dilating on the serious nature of that enterprise, never wearied in protesting how much risk he and Miss Pett were running; never refrained from showing the captive how very black things were, and how much blacker they would be if it were not for his present gaolers' goodness. And when he returned to the cottage after the inquest on Stoner, his face was unusually long and grave as he prepared to tell Mallalieu the news.

"Things are looking in a very bad way for you, Mr. Mallalieu," he whispered, when he was closeted with Mallalieu in the little room which the captive now hated fiercely and loathingly. "They look in a very bad way indeed, sir! If you were in any other hands than ours, Mr. Mallalieu, I don't know what you'd do. We're running the most fearful risks on your behalf, we are indeed. Things is--dismal!"

Mallalieu's temper, never too good, and all the worse for his enforced confinement, blazed up.

"Hang it! why don't you speak out plain?" he snarled. "Say what you mean, and be done with it! What's up now, like? Things are no worse than they were, I reckon."

Christopher slowly drew off one of the black kid gloves, and blew into it before laying it on the table.

"No need to use strong language, Mr. Mallalieu," he said deprecatingly, as he calmly proceeded to divest the other hand. "No need at all, sir--between friends and gentlemen, Mr. Mallalieu!--things are a lot worse. The coroner's jury has returned a verdict of wilful murder--against you!"

Mallalieu's big face turned of a queer grey hue--that word murder was particularly distasteful to him.

"Against me!" he muttered. "Why me particularly? There were two of us charged. What about Cotherstone?"

"I'm talking about the inquest" said Christopher. "They don't charge anybody at inquests--they only inquire in general. The verdict's against you, and you only. And--it was Cotherstone's evidence that did it!"

"Cotherstone!" exclaimed Mallalieu. "Evidence against me! He's a liar if----"

"I'll tell you--all in due order," interrupted Chris. "Be calm, Mr. Mallalieu, and listen--be judicial."

But in spite of this exhortation, Mallalieu fumed and fretted, and when Christopher had told him everything he looked as if it only required a little resolution on his part to force himself to action.

"I've a good mind to go straight out o' this place and straight down to the police!" he growled. "I have indeed!--a great mind to go and give myself up, and have things proved."

"Do!" said Christopher, heartily. "I wish you would, sir. It 'ud save me and my poor aunt a world of trouble. Only--it's my duty as a duly qualified solicitor of the High Court to inform you that every step you take from this haven of refuge will be a step towards the--gallows!"

Mallalieu shrank back in his chair and stared at Mr. Pett's sharp features. His own blanched once more.

"You're sure of that?" he demanded hoarsely.

"Certain!" replied Christopher. "No doubt of it, sir. I know!"

"What's to be done, then?" asked the captive.

Christopher assumed his best consultation-and-advice manner.

"What," he said at last, "in my opinion, is the best thing is to wait and see what happens when Cotherstone's brought up before the bench next Tuesday. You're safe enough until then--so long as you do what we tell you. Although all the country is being watched and searched, there's not the ghost of a notion that you're in Highmarket. So remain as content as you can, Mr. Mallalieu, and as soon as we learn what takes place next Tuesday, we'll see about that plan of ours."

"Let's be knowing what it is," grumbled Mallalieu.

"Not quite matured, sir, yet," said Christopher as he rose and picked up the silk hat and the kid gloves. "But when it is, you'll say--ah, you'll say it's a most excellent one!"

So Mallalieu had to wait until the next Tuesday came round. He did the waiting impatiently and restlessly. He ate, he drank, he slept--slept as he had never slept in his life--but he knew that he was losing flesh from anxiety. It was with real concern that he glanced at Christopher when that worthy returned from the adjourned case on the Tuesday afternoon. His face fell when he saw that Christopher was gloomier than ever.

"Worse and worse, Mr. Mallalieu!" whispered Christopher mysteriously when he had shut the door. "Everything's against you, sir. It's all centring and fastening on you. What do you think happened? Cotherstone's discharged!"

"What!" exclaimed Mallalieu, jumping in his chair. "Discharged! Why, then, they'd have discharged me!"

Christopher laid his finger on the side of his nose.

"Would they?" he said with a knowing wink. "Not much they wouldn't. Cotherstone's let loose--to give evidence against you. When you're caught!"

Mallalieu's small eyes began to bulge, and a dull red to show on his cheek. He looked as if he were bursting with words which he could not get out, and Christopher Pett hastened to improve the occasion.

"It's my opinion it's all a plant!" he said. "A conspiracy, if you like, between Cotherstone and the authorities. Cotherstone, he's got the smartest solicitor in Norcaster and the shrewdest advocate on this circuit--you know 'em, Mr. Mallalieu--Stilby's the solicitor, and Gradston the barrister--and it strikes me it's a put-up job. D'ye see through it? First of all, Cotherstone gives evidence at that inquest: on his evidence a verdict of murder is returned against--you! Now Cotherstone's discharged by the magistrates--no further evidence being offered against him. Why? So that he can give evidence before the magistrates and at the Assizes against--you! That is--when you're caught."

"They've got to catch me yet," growled Mallalieu. "Now then--what about this plan of yours? For I'm going to wait no longer. Either you tell me what you're going to do for me, or I shall walk out o' that door as soon as it's dark tonight and take my chances. D'ye hear that?"

Christopher rose, opened the door, and softly called Miss Pett. And Miss Pett came, took a seat, folded her thin arms, and looked attentively at her learned nephew.

"Yes, sir," said Christopher, resuming the conversation, "I hear that--and we are now ready to explain plans and discuss terms. You will, of course, recompense us, Mr. Mallalieu?"

"I've said all along that you'd not lose by me," retorted Mallalieu. "Aught in reason, I'll pay. But--this plan o' yours? I'm going to know what it is before we come to any question of paying. So out with it!"

"Well, it's an excellent plan," responded Christopher. "You say that you'll be safe if you're set down in a certain part of Norcaster--near the docks. Now that will suit our plans exactly. You're aware, of course, Mr. Mallalieu, that my aunt here is about to remove her goods and chattels--bequeathed by Mr. Kitely, deceased--from this house? Very well--the removal's to take place tomorrow. I have already arranged with Mr. Strawson, furniture remover, to send up a couple of vans tomorrow morning, very early. Into those vans the furniture will be placed, and the vans will convey it to Norcaster, whence they will be transshipped bodily to London, by sea. Mr. Mallalieu--you'll leave here, sir, in one of those vans!"

Mallalieu listened, considered, began to see possibilities.

"Aye!" he said, with a cunning glance. "Aye!--that's not a bad notion. I can see my way in that respect. But--how am I going to get into a van here, and got out of it there, without the vanmen knowing?"

"I've thought it all out," answered Christopher. "You must keep snug in this room until afternoon. We'll get the first van off in the morning--say by noon. I'll so contrive that the second van won't be ready to start until after it's dusk. When it is ready the men'll go down to fetch their horses--I'll give 'em something to get themselves a drink before they come back--that'll delay 'em a bit longer. And while they're away, we'll slip you into the van--and I shall go with that van to Norcaster. And when we get to the shed at Norcaster where the vans are to be left, the two men will go away with their horses--and I shall let you out. It's a good plan, Mr. Mallalieu."

"It'll do, anyhow," agreed Mallalieu, who felt heartily relieved. "We'll try it. But you must take all possible care until I'm in, and we're off. The least bit of a slip----"

Mr. Pett drily remarked that if any slips occurred they would not be of his making--after which both he and his aunt coughed several times and looked at the guest-prisoner in a fashion which seemed to invite speech from him.

"All right then," said Mallalieu. "Tomorrow, you say? All right--all right!"

Miss Pett coughed again and began to make pleats in her apron.

"Of course, Christopher," she said, addressing her nephew as if there were no other person present, "of course, Mr. Mallalieu has not yet stated his terms."

"Oh!--ah!--just so!" replied Christopher, starting as from a pensive reverie. "Ah, to be sure. Now, what would you say, Mr. Mallalieu? How do you feel disposed, sir?"

Mallalieu looked fixedly from aunt to nephew, from nephew to aunt. Then his face became hard and rigid.

"Fifty pound apiece!" he said. "That's how I'm disposed. And you don't get an offer like that every day, I know. Fifty pound apiece!"

Miss Pett inclined her turbaned head towards her right shoulder and sighed heavily: Mr. Pett folded his hands, looked at the ceiling, and whistled.

"We don't get an offer like that every day!" he murmured. "No!--I should think we didn't! Fifty pound apiece!--a hundred pound altogether--for saving a fellow-creature from the gallows! Oh, Mr. Mallalieu!"

"Hang it!--how much money d'ye think I'm likely to carry on me?--me!--in my unfortunate position!" snarled Mallalieu. "D'ye think----"

"Christopher," observed Miss Pett, rising and making for the door, "I should suggest that Mr. Mallalieu is left to consider matters. Perhaps when he's reflected a bit----"

She and her nephew went out, leaving Mallalieu fuming and grumbling. And once in the living-room she turned to Christopher with a shake of the head.

"What did I tell you?" she said. "Mean as a miser! My plan's much the best. We'll help ourselves--and then we can snap our fingers at him. I'll give him an extra strong nightcap tonight, and then...."

But before the close of that evening came Mallalieu's notions underwent a change. He spent the afternoon in thinking. He knew that he was in the power of two people who, if they could, would skin him. And the more he thought, the more he began to be suspicious--and suddenly he wondered why he slept so heavily at night, and all of a sudden he saw the reason. Drugged!--that old she-devil was drugging his drink. That was it, of course--but it had been for the last time: she shouldn't do it again.

That night when Miss Pett brought the hot toddy, mixed according to the recipe of the late Kitely, Mallalieu took it at his door, saying he was arrayed for sleep, and would drink it when in bed. After which he carefully poured it into a flower-pot that graced his room, and when he presently lay down it was with eyes and ears open and his revolver ready to his right hand.




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