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.
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.