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The Borough Treasurer

The Borough Treasurer

Joseph Smith Fletcher

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 BLACKMAIL

  • Half way along the north side of the main street of Highmarket an ancien_tone gateway, imposing enough to suggest that it was originally the entranc_o some castellated mansion or manor house, gave access to a square yard, flanked about by equally ancient buildings. What those buildings had been use_or in other days was not obvious to the casual and careless observer, but t_he least observant their present use was obvious enough. Here were piles o_imber from Norway; there were stacks of slate from Wales; here was marbl_rom Aberdeen, and there cement from Portland: the old chambers of the gre_uildings were filled to overflowing with all the things that go toward_aking a house—ironwork, zinc, lead, tiles, great coils of piping, stores o_omestic appliances. And on a shining brass plate, set into the wall, jus_ithin the gateway, were deeply engraven the words: _Mallalieu an_otherstone, Builders and Contractors_.
  • Whoever had walked into Mallalieu & Cotherstone's yard one October afternoon _ew years ago would have seen Mallalieu and Cotherstone in person. The tw_artners had come out of their office and gone down the yard to inspect half _ozen new carts, just finished, and now drawn up in all the glory of fres_aint. Mallalieu had designed those carts himself, and he was now pointing ou_heir advantages to Cotherstone, who was more concerned with the book-keepin_nd letter-writing side of the business than with its actual work. He was _ig, fleshy man, Mallalieu, midway between fifty and sixty, of a large, solemn, well-satisfied countenance, small, sly eyes, and an expression o_teady watchfulness; his attire was always of the eminently respectable sort, his linen fresh and glossy; the thick gold chain across his ample front, an_he silk hat which he invariably wore, gave him an unmistakable air o_rosperity. He stood now, the silk hat cocked a little to one side, one han_nder the tail of his broadcloth coat, a pudgy finger of the other pointing t_ome new feature of the mechanism of the new carts, and he looked th_ersonification of self-satisfaction and smug content.
  • "All done in one action, d'ye see, Cotherstone?" he was saying. "One pull a_hat pin releases the entire load. We'd really ought to have a patent for tha_dea."
  • Cotherstone went nearer the cart which they were examining. He was a good dea_f a contrast to his partner—a slightly built, wiry man, nervous and quick o_ovement; although he was Mallalieu's junior he looked older, and the thi_air at his temples was already whitening. Mallalieu suggested solidity an_lmost bovine sleekness; in Cotherstone, activity of speech and gesture wa_arked well-nigh to an appearance of habitual anxiety. He stepped about th_art with the quick action of an inquisitive bird or animal examinin_omething which it has never seen before.
  • "Yes, yes, yes!" he answered. "Yes, that's a good idea. But if it's to b_atented, you know, we ought to see to it at once, before these carts go int_se."
  • "Why, there's nobody in Highmarket like to rob us," observed Mallalieu, good- humouredly. "You might consider about getting—what do they cal_t?—provisional protection?—for it."
  • "I'll look it up," responded Cotherstone. "It's worth that, anyhow."
  • "Do," said Mallalieu. He pulled out the big gold watch which hung from the en_f his cable chain and glanced at its jewelled dial. "Dear me!" he exclaimed.
  • "Four o'clock—I've a meeting in the Mayor's parlour at ten past. But I'll loo_n again before going home."
  • He hurried away towards the entrance gate, and Cotherstone, after ruminativ_nspection of the new carts, glanced at some papers in his hand and went ove_o a consignment of goods which required checking. He was carefully tickin_hem off on a list when a clerk came down the yard.
  • "Mr. Kitely called to pay his rent, sir," he announced. "He asked to see yo_ourself."
  • "Twenty-five—six—seven," counted Cotherstone. "Take him into the privat_ffice, Stoner," he answered. "I'll be there in a minute."
  • He continued his checking until it was finished, entered the figures on hi_ist, and went briskly back to the counting-house near the gateway. There h_ustled into a room kept sacred to himself and Mallalieu, with a cheer_reeting to his visitor—an elderly man who had recently rented from him _mall house on the outskirts of the town.
  • "Afternoon, Mr. Kitely," he said. "Glad to see you, sir—always glad to se_nybody with a bit of money, eh? Take a chair, sir—I hope you're satisfie_ith the little place, Mr. Kitely?"
  • The visitor took the offered elbow-chair, folded his hands on the top of hi_ld-fashioned walking-cane, and glanced at his landlord with a half-humorous, half-quizzical expression. He was an elderly, clean-shaven, grey-haired man, spare of figure, dressed in rusty black; a wisp of white neckcloth at hi_hroat gave him something of a clerical appearance: Cotherstone, who knew nex_o nothing about him, except that he was able to pay his rent and taxes, ha_lready set him down as a retired verger of some cathedral.
  • "I should think you and Mr. Mallalieu are in no need of a bit of money, Mr.
  • Cotherstone," he said quietly. "Business seems to be good with you, sir."
  • "Oh, so-so," replied Cotherstone, off-handedly. "Naught to complain of, o_ourse. I'll give you a receipt, Mr. Kitely," he went on, seating himself a_is desk and taking up a book of forms. "Let's see—twenty-five pounds a yea_s six pound five a quarter—there you are, sir. Will you have a drop o_hisky?"
  • Kitely laid a handful of gold and silver on the desk, took the receipt, an_odded his head, still watching Cotherstone with the same half-humorou_xpression.
  • "Thank you," he said. "I shouldn't mind."
  • He watched Cotherstone produce a decanter and glasses, watched him fetch fres_ater from a filter in the corner of the room, watched him mix the drinks, an_ook his own with no more than a polite nod of thanks. And Cotherstone, murmuring an expression of good wishes, took a drink himself, and sat dow_ith his desk-chair turned towards his visitor.
  • "Aught you'd like doing at the house, Mr. Kitely?" he asked.
  • "No," answered Kitely, "no, I can't say that there is."
  • There was something odd, almost taciturn, in his manner, and Cotherston_lanced at him a little wonderingly.
  • "And how do you like Highmarket, now you've had a spell of it?" he inquired.
  • "Got settled down, I suppose, now?"
  • "It's all that I expected," replied Kitely. "Quiet—peaceful. How do you lik_t?"
  • "Me!" exclaimed Cotherstone, surprised. "Me?—why, I've had—yes, five-and- twenty years of it!"
  • Kitely took another sip from his glass and set it down. He gave Cotherstone _harp look.
  • "Yes," he said, "yes—five-and-twenty years. You and your partner, both.
  • Yes—it'll be just about thirty years since I first saw you. But—you'v_orgotten."
  • Cotherstone, who had been lounging forward, warming his hands at the fire, suddenly sat straight up in his chair. His face, always sharp seemed to gro_harper as he turned to his visitor with a questioning look.
  • "Since—what?" he demanded.
  • "Since I first saw you—and Mr. Mallalieu," replied Kitely. "As I say, you'v_orgotten. But—I haven't."
  • Cotherstone sat staring at his tenant for a full minute of speechlessness.
  • Then he slowly rose, walked over to the door, looked at it to see that it wa_losed, and returning to the hearth, fixed his eyes on Kitely.
  • "What do you mean?" he asked.
  • "Just what I say," answered Kitely, with a dry laugh. "It's thirty years sinc_ first saw you and Mallalieu. That's all."
  • "Where?" demanded Cotherstone.
  • Kitely motioned his landlord to sit down. And Cotherstone sat down—trembling.
  • His arm shook when Kitely laid a hand on it.
  • "Do you want to know where?" he asked, bending close to Cotherstone. "I'l_ell you. In the dock—at Wilchester Assizes. Eh?"
  • Cotherstone made no answer. He had put the tips of his fingers together, an_ow he was tapping the nails of one hand against the nails of the other. An_e stared and stared at the face so close to his own—as if it had been th_ace of a man resurrected from the grave. Within him there was a feeling o_xtraordinary physical sickness; it was quickly followed by one of inertia, just as extraordinary. He felt as if he had been mesmerized; as if he coul_either move nor speak. And Kitely sat there, a hand on his victim's arm, hi_ace sinister and purposeful, close to his.
  • "Fact!" he murmured. "Absolute fact! I remember everything. It's come on m_it by bit, though. I thought I knew you when I first came here—then I had _eeling that I knew Mallalieu. And—in time—I remembered—everything! Of course, when I saw you both—where I did see you—you weren't Mallalieu & Cotherstone.
  • You were——"
  • Cotherstone suddenly made an effort, and shook off the thin fingers which la_n his sleeve. His pale face grew crimson, and the veins swelled on hi_orehead.
  • "Confound you!" he said in a low, concentrated voice. "Who are you?"
  • Kitely shook his head and smiled quietly.
  • "No need to grow warm," he answered. "Of course, it's excusable in you. Who a_? Well, if you really want to know, I've been employed in the police line fo_hirty-five years—until lately."
  • "A detective!" exclaimed Cotherstone.
  • "Not when I was present at Wilchester—that time," replied Kitely. "Bu_fterwards—in due course. Ah!—do you know, I often was curious as to wha_ecame of you both! But I never dreamed of meeting you—here. Of course, yo_ame up North after you'd done your time? Changed your names, started a ne_ife—and here you are! Clever!"
  • Cotherstone was recovering his wits. He had got out of his chair by that time, and had taken up a position on the hearthrug, his back to the fire, his hand_n his pockets, his eyes on his visitor. He was thinking—and for the moment h_et Kitely talk.
  • "Yes—clever!" continued Kitely in the same level, subdued tones, "very cleve_ndeed! I suppose you'd carefully planted some of that money you—got hold of?
  • Must have done, of course—you'd want money to start this business. Well, you've done all this on the straight, anyhow. And you've done well, too. Odd, isn't it, that I should come to live down here, right away in the far North o_ngland, and find you in such good circumstances, too! Mr. Mallalieu, Mayor o_ighmarket—his second term of office! Mr. Cotherstone, Borough Treasurer o_ighmarket—now in his sixth year of that important post! I say again—you'v_oth done uncommonly well—uncommonly!"
  • "Have you got any more to say?" asked Cotherstone.
  • But Kitely evidently intended to say what he had to say in his own fashion. H_ook no notice of Cotherstone's question, and presently, as if he were amusin_imself with reminiscences of a long dead past, he spoke again, quietly an_lowly.
  • "Yes," he murmured, "uncommonly well! And of course you'd have capital. Pu_afely away, of course, while you were doing your time. Let's see—it was _uilding Society that you defrauded, wasn't it? Mallalieu was treasurer, an_ou were secretary. Yes—I remember now. The amount was two thous——"
  • Cotherstone made a sudden exclamation and a sharp movement—both checked by a_qually sudden change of attitude and expression on the part of the ex- detective. For Kitely sat straight up and looked the junior partner squarel_n the face.
  • "Better not, Mr. Cotherstone!" he said, with a grin that showed his yello_eeth. "You can't very well choke the life out of me in your own office, ca_ou? You couldn't hide my old carcase as easily as you and Mallalieu hid thos_uilding Society funds, you know. So—be calm! I'm a reasonable man—and gettin_n old man."
  • He accompanied the last words with a meaning smile, and Cotherstone took _urn or two about the room, trying to steady himself. And Kitely presentl_ent on again, in the same monotonous tones:
  • "Think it all out—by all means," he said. "I don't suppose there's a soul i_ll England but myself knows your secret—and Mallalieu's. It was shee_ccident, of course, that I ever discovered it. But—I know! Just consider wha_ do know. Consider, too, what you stand to lose. There's Mallalieu, so muc_espected that he's Mayor of this ancient borough for the second time. There'_ou—so much trusted that you've been Borough Treasurer for years. You can'_fford to let me tell the Highmarket folk that you two are ex-convicts!
  • Besides, in your case there's another thing—there's your daughter."
  • Cotherstone groaned—a deep, unmistakable groan of sheer torture. But Kitel_ent on remorselessly.
  • "Your daughter's just about to marry the most promising young man in th_lace," he said. "A young fellow with a career before him. Do you think he'_arry her if he knew that her father—even if it is thirty years ago—had bee_onvicted of——"
  • "Look you here!" interrupted Cotherstone, through set teeth. "I've had enough!
  • I've asked you once before if you'd any more to say—now I'll put it in anothe_ashion. For I see what you're after—and it's blackmail! How much do you want?
  • Come on—give it a name!"
  • "Name nothing, till you've told Mallalieu," answered Kitely. "There's n_urry. You two can't, and I shan't, run away. Time enough—I've the whip hand.
  • Tell your partner, the Mayor, all I've told you—then you can put your head_ogether, and see what you're inclined to do. An annuity, now?—that would sui_e."
  • "You haven't mentioned this to a soul?" asked Cotherstone anxiously.
  • "Bah!" sneered Kitely. "D'ye think I'm a fool? Not likely. Well—now you know.
  • I'll come in here again tomorrow afternoon. And—you'll both be here, and read_ith a proposal."
  • He picked up his glass, leisurely drank off its remaining contents, an_ithout a word of farewell opened the door and went quietly away.