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Chapter 12 PARENTAL ANXIETY

  • For a moment Brereton and the superintendent looked at each other in silence.
  • Then Bent got up from his desk at the other side of the room, and he and th_ittle solicitor came towards them.
  • "Keep that to yourself, then," muttered Brereton. "We'll talk of it later. I_ay be of importance."
  • "Well, there's this much to bear in mind," whispered the superintendent, drawing back a little with an eye on the others. "Nothing of that sort wa_ound on your client! And he'd been out all night. That's wort_onsidering—from his standpoint, Mr. Brereton."
  • Brereton nodded his assent and turned away with another warning glance. An_resently Pett and the superintendent went off, and Bent dropped into his eas_hair with a laugh.
  • "Queer sort of unexpected legacy!" he said. "I wonder if the old man reall_hought I should be interested in his scrap-book?"
  • "There may be a great deal that's interesting in it," remarked Brereton, wit_ glance at the book, which Bent had laid aside on top of a book-case. "Tak_are of it. Well, what did you think of Mr. Christopher Pett?"
  • "Cool hand, I should say," answered Bent. "But—what did you think of him?"
  • "Oh, I've met Mr. Christopher Pett's sort before," said Brereton, drily. "Th_odson & Fogg type of legal practitioner is by no means extinct. I should muc_ike to know a good deal more about his various dealings with Kitely. We shal_ee and hear more about them, however—later on. For the present ther_re—other matters."
  • He changed the subject then—to something utterly apart from the murder and it_ystery. For the one topic which filled his own mind was also the very on_hich he could not discuss with Bent. Had Cotherstone, had Mallalieu anythin_o do with Kitely's death? That question was beginning to engross all hi_ttention: he thought more about it than about his schemes for a successfu_efence of Harborough, well knowing that his best way of proving Harborough'_nnocence lay in establishing another man's guilt.
  • "One would give a good deal," he said to himself, as he went to bed tha_ight, "if one could get a moment's look into Cotherstone's mind—or int_allalieu's either! For I'll swear that these two know something—possibl_ongratulating themselves that it will never be known to anybody else!"
  • If Brereton could have looked into the minds of either of the partners at thi_articular juncture he would have found much opportunity for thought an_eflection, of a curious nature. For both were keeping a double watch—on th_ourse of events on one hand; on each other, on the other hand. They watche_he police-court proceedings against Harborough and saw, with infinite relief, that nothing transpired which seemed inimical to themselves. They watched th_roceedings at the inquest held on Kitely; they, too, yielded nothing tha_ould attract attention in the way they dreaded. When several days had gone b_nd the police investigations seemed to have settled down into a concentrate_urpose against the suspected man, both Mallalieu and Cotherstone believe_hemselves safe from discovery—their joint secret appeared to be well burie_ith the old detective. But the secret was keenly and vividly alive in thei_wn hearts, and when Mallalieu faced the truth he knew that he suspecte_otherstone, and when Cotherstone put things squarely to himself he knew tha_e suspected Mallalieu. And the two men got to eyeing each other furtively, and to addressing each other curtly, and when they happened to be alone ther_as a heavy atmosphere of mutual dislike and suspicion between them.
  • It was a strange psychological fact that though these men had been partner_or a period covering the most important part of their lives, they had next t_othing in common. They were excellent partners in business matters; Mallalie_new Cotherstone, and Cotherstone knew Mallalieu in all things relating to th_aking of money. But in taste, temperament, character, understanding, the_ere as far apart as the poles. This aloofness when tested further by th_ecent discomposing events manifested itself in a disinclination t_onfidence. Mallalieu, whatever he thought, knew very well that he would neve_ay what he thought to Cotherstone; Cotherstone knew precisely the same thin_ith regard to Mallalieu. But this silence bred irritation, and as the day_ent by the irritation became more than Cotherstone could bear. He was _ighly-strung, nervous man, quick to feel and to appreciate, and the averte_ooks and monosyllabic remarks and replies of a man into whose company h_ould not avoid being thrown began to sting him to something like madness. An_ne day, left alone in the office with Mallalieu when Stoner the clerk ha_one to get his dinner, the irritation became unbearable, and he turned on hi_artner in a sudden white heat of ungovernable and impotent anger.
  • "Hang you!" he hissed between his set teeth. "I believe you think I did tha_ob! And if you do, blast you, why don't you say so, and be done with it?"
  • Mallalieu, who was standing on the hearth, warming his broad back at the fire, thrust his hands deeply into his pockets and looked half-sneeringly at hi_artner out of his screwed-up eyes.
  • "I should advise you to keep yourself cool," he said with affected quietness.
  • "There's more than me'll think a good deal if you chance to let yourself ou_ike that."
  • "You do think it!" reiterated Cotherstone passionately. "Damn it, d'ye think _aven't noticed it? Always looking at me as if—as if——"
  • "Now then, keep yourself calm," interrupted Mallalieu. "I can look at you o_t any other, in any way I like, can't I? There's no need to distres_ourself—I shan't give aught away. If you took it in your head to settl_atters—as they were settled—well, I shan't say a word. That is unless—yo_nderstand?"
  • "Understand what?" screamed Cotherstone.
  • "Unless I'm obliged to," answered Mallalieu. "I should have to make it clea_hat I'd naught to do with that particular matter, d'ye see? Every man fo_imself's a sound principle. But—I see no need. I don't believe there'll b_ny need. And it doesn't matter the value of that pen that's shaking so i_our hand to me if an innocent man suffers—if he's innocent o' that, he'_uilty o' something else. You're safe with me."
  • Cotherstone flung the pen on the floor and stamped on it. And Mallalie_aughed cynically and walked slowly across to the door.
  • "You're a fool, Cotherstone," he said. "Go on a bit more like that, and you'l_et it all out to somebody 'at 'll not keep secrets as I can. Cool yourself, man, cool yourself!"
  • "Hang you!" shouted Cotherstone. "Mind I don't let something out about you!
  • Where were you that night, I should like to know? Or, rather, I do know!
  • You're no safer than I am! And if I told what I do know——"
  • Mallalieu, with his hand on the latch, turned and looked his partner in th_ace—without furtiveness, for once.
  • "And if you told aught that you do, or fancy you know," he said quietly,
  • "there'd be ruin in your home, you soft fool! I thought you wanted things kep_uiet for your lass's sake? Pshaw!—you're taking leave o' your senses!"
  • He walked out at that, and Cotherstone, shaking with anger, relapsed into _hair and cursed his fate. And after a time he recovered himself and began t_hink, and his thoughts turned instinctively to Lettie.
  • Mallalieu was right—of course, he was right! Anything that he, Cotherstone, could say or do in the way of bringing up the things that must be suppresse_ould ruin Lettie's chances. So, at any rate, it seemed to him. Fo_otherstone's mind was essentially a worldly one, and it was beyond him t_elieve that an ambitious young man like Windle Bent would care to all_imself with the daughter of an ex-convict. Bent would have the best o_xcuses for breaking off all relations with the Cotherstone family if th_npleasant truth came out. No!—whatever else he did, he must keep his secre_afe until Bent and Lettie were safely married. That once accomplished, Cotherstone cared little about the future: Bent could not go back on his wife.
  • And so Cotherstone endeavoured to calm himself, so that he could scheme an_lot, and before night came he paid a visit to his doctor, and when he wen_ome that evening, he had his plans laid.
  • Bent was with Lettie when Cotherstone got home, and Cotherstone presently go_he two of them into a little snuggery which he kept sacred to himself as _ule. He sat down in his easy chair, and signed to them to sit near him.
  • "I'm glad I found you together," he said. "There's something I want to say.
  • There's no call for you to be frightened, Lettie—but what I've got to say i_erious. And I'll put it straight—Bent'll understand. Now, you'd arranged t_et married next spring—six months hence. I want you to change your minds, an_o let it be as soon as you can."
  • He looked with a certain eager wistfulness at Lettie, expecting to see he_tart with surprise. But fond as he was of her, Cotherstone had so far faile_o grasp the later developments of his daughter's character. Letti_otherstone was not the sort of young woman who allows herself to be surprise_y anything. She was remarkably level-headed, cool of thought, well able t_ake care of herself in every way, and fully alive to the possibilities of he_nion with the rising young manufacturer. And instead of showing an_stonishment, she quietly asked her father what he meant.
  • "I'll tell you," answered Cotherstone, greatly relieved to find that bot_eemed inclined to talk matters quietly over. "It's this—I've not been feelin_s well as I ought to feel, lately. The fact is, Bent, I've done too much i_y time. A man can work too hard, you know—and it tells on him in the end. S_he doctor says, anyhow."
  • "The doctor!" exclaimed Lettie. "You haven't been to him?"
  • "Seen him this afternoon," replied Cotherstone. "Don't alarm yourself. Bu_hat's what he says—naught wrong, all sound, but—it's time I rested. Rest an_hange—complete change. And I've made up my mind—I'm going to retire fro_usiness. Why not? I'm a well-to-do man—better off than most folks 'ud think.
  • I shall tell Mallalieu tomorrow. Yes—I'm resolved on it. And that done, _hall go and travel for a year or two—I've always wanted to go round th_orld. I'll go—that for a start, anyway. And the sooner the better, says th_octor. And——" here he looked searchingly at his listeners—"I'd like to se_ou settled before I go. What?"
  • Lettie's calm and judicial character came out in the first words she spoke.
  • She had listened carefully to Cotherstone; now she turned to Bent.
  • "Windle," she said, as quietly as if she were asking the most casual o_uestions, "wouldn't it upset all your arrangements for next year? You see, father," she went on, turning to Cotherstone, "Windle had arranged everything.
  • He was going to have the whole of the spring and summer away from business; w_ere going on the Continent for six months. And that would have to be entirel_ltered and——"
  • "We could alter it," interrupted Bent. He was watching Cotherstone closely, and fancying that he saw a strained and eager look in his face, he decide_hat Cotherstone was keeping something back, and had not told them the ful_ruth about his health.
  • "It's all a matter of arrangement. I could arrange to go away during th_inter, Lettie."
  • "But I don't want to travel in winter," objected Lettie. "Besides—I've mad_ll my arrangements about my gowns and things."
  • "That can be arranged, too," said Bent. "The dressmaker can work overtime."
  • "That'll mean that everything will be hurried—and spoiled," replied Lettie.
  • "Besides, I've arranged everything with my bridesmaids. They can't be expecte_o——"
  • "We can do without bridesmaids," replied Bent, laying his hand on Lettie'_rm. "If your father really feels that he's got to have the rest and th_hange he spoke of, and wants us to be married first, why, then——"
  • "But there's nothing to prevent you having a rest and a change now, father,"
  • said Lettie. "Why not? I don't like my arrangements to be altered—I ha_lanned everything out so carefully. When we did fix on next spring, Windle, _ad only just time as it was!"
  • "Pooh!" said Bent. "We could get married the day after tomorrow if we wanted!
  • Bridesmaids—gowns—all that sort of tomfoolery, what does it matter?"
  • "It isn't tomfoolery," retorted Lettie. "If I am to be married I should lik_o be married properly."
  • She got up, with a heightened colour and a little toss of her head, and lef_he room, and the two men looked at each other.
  • "Talk to her, my lad," said Cotherstone at last. "Of course, girls think suc_ lot of—of all the accompaniments, eh?"
  • "Yes, yes—it'll be all right," replied Bent. He tapped Cotherstone's arm an_ave him a searching look. "You're not keeping anything back—about you_ealth, are you?" he asked.
  • Cotherstone glanced at the door and sank his voice to a whisper.
  • "It's my heart!" he answered. "Over-strained—much over-strained, the docto_ays. Rest and change—imperative! But—not a word to Lettie, Bent. Talk he_ound—get it arranged. I shall feel safer—you understand?"
  • Bent was full of good nature, and though he understood to the full—it was _atural thing, this anxiety of a father for his only child. He promised t_alk seriously to Lettie at once about an early wedding. And that night h_old Brereton of what had happened, and asked him if he knew how specia_icences can be got, and Brereton informed him of all he knew on tha_oint—and kept silence about one which to him was becoming deeply an_eriously important.