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.