Although Stoner hailed from Darlington, he had no folk of his own lef_here—they were all dead and gone. Accordingly he put himself up at a chea_otel, and when he had taken what its proprietors called a meat tea, h_trolled out and made for that part of the town in which his friend Myler ha_et up housekeeping in a small establishment wherein there was just room for _ouple of people to turn round. Its accommodation, indeed, was severely taxe_ust then, for Myler's father and mother-in-law had come to visit him an_heir daughter, and when Stoner walked in on the scene and added a fifth th_iny parlour was filled to its full extent.
"Who'd ha' thought of seeing you, Stoner!" exclaimed Myler joyously, when h_ad welcomed his old chum, and had introduced him to the family circle. "An_hat brings you here, anyway? Business?"
"Just a bit of business," answered Stoner. "Nothing much, though—only a cal_o make, later on. I'm stopping the night, though."
"Wish we could ha' put you up here, old sport!" said Myler, ruefully. "But w_on't live in a castle, yet. All full here!—unless you'd like a shakedown o_he kitchen table, or in the wood-shed. Or you can try the bath, if you like."
Amidst the laughter which succeeded this pleasantry, Stoner said that h_ouldn't trouble the domestic peace so far—he'd already booked his room. An_hile Myler—who, commercial-traveller like, cultivated a reputation fo_it—indulged in further jokes, Stoner stealthily inspected the father-in-law.
What a fortunate coincidence! he said to himself; what a lucky stroke! Ther_e was, wanting badly to find out something about Wilchester—and here, elbo_o elbow with him, was a Wilchester man! And an elderly Wilchester man,
too—one who doubtless remembered all about Wilchester for many a long year.
That was another piece of luck, for Stoner was quite certain that i_otherstone had ever had any connexion with Wilchester it must have been _ong, long time ago: he knew, from information acquired, that Cotherstone ha_een a fixture in Highmarket for thirty years.
He glanced at Myler's father-in-law again as Myler, remarking that when ol_riends meet, the flowing bowl must flow, produced a bottle of whisky from _rand-new chiffonier, and entreated his bride to fetch what he poeticall_escribed as the crystal goblets and the sparkling stream. The father-in-la_as a little apple-faced old gentleman with bright eyes and a ready smile, wh_vidently considered his son-in-law a born wit, and was ready to laugh at al_is sallies. A man of good memory, that, decided Stoner, and wondered how h_ould diplomaticaly lead Mr. Pursey to talk about the town he came from. Bu_r. Pursey was shortly to talk about Wilchester to some purpose—and with n_rawing-out from Stoner or anybody.
"Well," remarked Myler, having supplied his guests with spirituou_efreshment, and taken a pull at his own glass. "I'm glad to see you, Stoner,
and so's the missis, and here's hoping you'll come again as often as the fro_ent to the water. You've been having high old times in that back-of-beyon_own of yours, haven't you? Battles, murders, sudden deaths!—who'd ha' though_ slow old hill-country town like Highmarket could have produced so muc_xcitement! What's happened to that chap they collared?—I haven't had time t_ook at the papers this last day or two—been too busy."
"Committed for trial," answered Stoner. "He'll come up at Norcaster Assize_ext month."
"Do they think he did it?" asked Myler. "Is it a sure thing?"
Before Stoner could reply Mr. Pursey entered the arena. His face displayed th_leased expression of the man who has special information.
"It's an odd thing, now, David," he said in a high, piping voice, "a very od_hing, that this should happen when I come up into these parts—almost a_oreign to me as the Fiji Islands might be. Yes, sir," he went on, turning t_toner, "it's very odd! I knew that man Kitely."
Stoner could have jumped from his seat, but he restrained himself, an_ontrived to show no more than a polite interest.
"Oh, indeed, sir?" he said. "The poor man that was murdered? You knew him?"
"I remember him very well indeed," assented Mr. Pursey. "Yes, although I onl_et him once, I've a very complete recollection of the man. I spent a ver_leasant evening with him and one or two more of his profession—better sort o_olice and detectives, you know—at a friend's of mine, who was one of ou_ilchester police officials—oh, it's—yes—it must be thirty years since. They'_ome from London, of course, on some criminal business. Deary me!—the tale_hem fellows could tell!"
"Thirty years is a long time, sir," observed Stoner politely.
"Aye, but I remember it quite well," said Mr. Pursey, with a confident nod. "_now it was thirty years ago, 'cause it was the Wilchester Assizes at whic_he Mallows & Chidforth case was tried. Yes—thirty years. Eighteen hundred an_ighty-one was the year. Mallows & Chidforth—aye!"
"Famous case that, sir?" asked Stoner. He was almost bursting with excitemen_y that time, and he took a big gulp of whisky and water to calm himself.
"Something special, sir? Murder, eh?"
"No—fraud, embezzlement, defalcation—I forget what the proper legal term 'u_e," replied Mr. Pursey. "But it was a bad case—a real bad 'un. We'd a workin_en's building society in Wilchester in those days—it's there now for tha_atter, but under another name—and there were two better-class young workmen,
smart fellows, that acted one as secretary and t'other as treasurer to it.
They'd full control, those two had, and they were trusted, aye, as if they'_een the Bank of England! And all of a sudden, something came out, and it wa_ound that these two, Mallows, treasurer, Chidforth, secretary, had made awa_ith two thousand pounds of the society's money. Two thousand pounds!"
"Two thousand pounds?" exclaimed Stoner, whose thoughts went like lightning t_he half-sheet of foolscap. "You don't say!"
"Yes—well, it might ha' been a pound or two more or less," said the old man,
"but two thousand was what they called it. And of course Mallows and Chidfort_ere prosecuted—and they got two years. Oh, yes, we remember that case ver_ell indeed in Wilchester, don't we, Maria?"
"And good reason!" agreed Mrs. Pursey warmly. "There were a lot of poor peopl_early ruined by them bad young men."
"There were!" affirmed Mr. Pursey. "Yes—oh, yes! Aye—I've often wondered wha_ecame of 'em—Mallows and Chidforth, I mean. For from the time they got out o_rison they've never been heard of in our parts. Not a word!—they disappeare_ompletely. Some say, of course, that they had that money safely planted, an_ent to it. I don't know. But—off they went."
"Pooh!" said Myler. "That's an easy one. Went off to some colony or other, o_ourse. Common occurrence, father-in-law. Bert, old sport, what say if we ris_n our pins and have a hundred at billiards at the Stag and Hunter—good tabl_here."
Stoner followed his friend out of the little house, and once outside took hi_y the arm.
"Confound the billards, Dave, old man!" he said, almost trembling wit_uppressed excitement. "Look here!—d'you know a real quiet corner in the Sta_here we can have an hour's serious consultation. You do?—then come on, an_'ll tell you the most wonderful story you ever heard since your ears wer_pened!"
Myler, immediately impressed, led the way into a small and vacant parlour i_he rear of a neighbouring hostelry, ordered refreshments, bade the girl wh_rought them to leave him and his friend alone, and took the liberty o_ocking the door on their privacy. And that done he showed himself such _erfect listener that he never opened his lips until Stoner had set fort_verything before him in detail. Now and then he nodded, now and then hi_harp eyes dilated, now and then he clapped his hands. And in the end he smot_toner on the shoulder.
"Stoner, old sport!" he exclaimed. "It's a sure thing! Gad, I never heard _learer. That five hundred is yours—aye, as dead certain as that my nose i_ine! It's—it's—what they call inductive reasoning. The initials M. an_.—Mallows and Chidforth—Mallalieu and Cotherstone—the two thousand pounds—th_act that Kitely was at Wilchester Assizes in 1881—that he becam_otherstone's tenant thirty years after—oh, I see it all, and so will a judg_nd jury! Stoner, one, or both of 'em killed that old chap to silence him!"
"That's my notion," assented Stoner, who was highly pleased with himself, an_y that time convinced that his own powers, rather than a combination of luck_ircumstances, had brought the desired result about. "Of course, I've worke_t out to that. And the thing now is—what's the best line to take? What woul_ou suggest, Dave?"
Myler brought all his business acumen to bear on the problem presented to him.
"What sort of chap is this Tallington?" he asked at last, pointing to the nam_t the foot of the reward handbill.
"Most respectable solicitor in Highmarket," answered Stoner, promptly.
"Word good?" asked Myler.
"Good as—gold," affirmed Stoner.
"Then if it was me," said Myler, "I should make a summary of what I knew, o_aper—carefully—and I should get a private interview with this Tallington an_ell him—all. Man!—you're safe of that five hundred! For there's no doubt,
Stoner, on the evidence, no doubt whatever!"
Stoner sat silently reflecting things for a while. Then he gave his friend _ly, somewhat nervous look. Although he and Myler had been bosom friends sinc_hey were breeched, Stoner was not quite certain as to what Myler would say t_hat he, Stoner, was just then thinking of.
"Look here," he said suddenly. "There's this about it. It's all jolly well,
but a fellow's got to think for himself, Dave, old man. Now it doesn't matte_ twopenny cuss to me about old Kitely—I don't care if he was scragged twic_ver—I've no doubt he deserved it. But it'll matter a lot to M. & C. i_hey're found out. I can touch that five hundred easy as winking—but—you tak_y meaning?—I daresay M. & C. 'ud run to five thousand if I kept my tongu_till. What?"
But Stoner knew at once that Myler disapproved. The commercial traveller'_omely face grew grave, and he shook his head with an unmistakable gesture.
"No, Stoner," he said. "None o' that! Play straight, my lad! No hush-mone_ransactions. Keep to the law, Stoner, keep to the law! Besides, there'_thers than you can find all this out. What you want to do is to get in first.
See Tallington as soon as you get back."
"I daresay you're right," admitted Stoner. "But—I know M. & C, and I kno_hey'd give—aye, half of what they're worth—and that's a lot!—to have thi_ept dark."
That thought was with him whenever he woke in the night, and as he strolle_ound Darlington next morning, it was still with him when, after an earl_inner, he set off homeward by an early afternoon train which carried him t_igh Gill junction; whence he had to walk five miles across the moors an_ills to Highmarket. And he was still pondering it weightily when, in one o_he loneliest parts of the solitudes which he was crossing, he turning th_orner of a little pine wood, and came face to face with Mallalieu.