When Mallalieu had gone, Cotherstone gathered up the papers which his cler_ad brought in, and sitting down at his desk tried to give his attention t_hem. The effort was not altogether a success. He had hoped that the sharin_f the bad news with his partner would bring some relief to him, but hi_nxieties were still there. He was always seeing that queer, sinister look i_itely's knowing eyes: it suggested that as long as Kitely lived there woul_e no safety. Even if Kitely kept his word, kept any compact made with him, h_ould always have the two partners under his thumb. And for thirty year_otherstone had been under no man's thumb, and the fear of having a master wa_ateful to him. He heartily wished that Kitely was dead—dead and buried, an_is secret with him; he wished that it had been anywise possible to hav_rushed the life out of him where he sat in that easy chair as soon as he ha_hown himself the reptile that he was. A man might kill any poisonous insect, any noxious reptile at pleasure—why not a human blood-sucker like that?
He sat there a long time, striving to give his attention to his papers, an_aking a poor show of it. The figures danced about before him; he could mak_either head nor tail of the technicalities in the specifications an_stimates; every now and then fits of abstraction came over him, and he sa_rumming the tips of his fingers on his blotting-pad, staring vacantly at th_hadows in the far depths of the room, and always thinking—thinking of th_errible danger of revelation. And always, as an under-current, he was sayin_hat for himself he cared naught—Kitely could do what he liked, or would hav_one what he liked, had there only been himself to think for. But—Lettie! Al_is life was now centred in her, and in her happiness, and Lettie's happiness, he knew, was centred in the man she was going to marry. And Cotherstone, though he believed that he knew men pretty well, was not sure that he kne_indle Bent sufficiently to feel sure that he would endure a stiff test. Ben_as ambitious—he was resolved on a career. Was he the sort of man to stand th_nowledge which Kitely might give him? For there was always the risk tha_hatever he and Mallalieu might do, Kitely, while there was breath in him, might split.
A sudden ringing at the bell of the telephone in the outer office mad_otherstone jump in his chair as if the arresting hand of justice had suddenl_een laid on him. In spite of himself he rose trembling, and there were bead_f perspiration on his forehead as he walked across the room.
"Nerves!" he muttered to himself. "I must be in a queer way to be taken lik_hat. It won't do!—especially at this turn. What is it?" he demanded, going t_he telephone. "Who is that?"
His daughter's voice, surprised and admonitory, came to him along the wire.
"Is that you, father?" she exclaimed. "What are you doing? Don't you remembe_ou asked Windle, and his friend Mr. Brereton, to supper at eight o'clock.
It's a quarter to eight now. Do come home!"
Cotherstone let out an exclamation which signified annoyance. The event of th_ate afternoon had completely driven it out of his recollection that Windl_ent had an old school-friend, a young barrister from London, staying wit_im, and that both had been asked to supper that evening at Cotherstone'_ouse. But Cotherstone's annoyance was not because of his own forgetfulness, but because his present abstraction made him dislike the notion of company.
"I'd forgotten—for the moment," he called. "I've been very busy. All right, Lettie—I'm coming on at once. Shan't be long."
But when he had left the telephone he made no haste. He lingered by his desk; he was slow in turning out the gas; slow in quitting and locking up hi_ffice; he went slowly away through the town. Nothing could have been furthe_rom his wishes than a desire to entertain company that night—and especially _tranger. His footsteps dragged as he passed through the market-place an_urned into the outskirts beyond.
Some years previously to this, when they had both married and made money, th_wo partners had built new houses for themselves. Outside Highmarket, on it_estern boundary, rose a long, low hill called Highmarket Shawl; the slop_hich overhung the town was thickly covered with fir and pine, amidst whic_reat masses of limestone crag jutted out here and there. At the foot of thi_ill, certain plots of building land had been sold, and Mallalieu had bough_ne and Cotherstone another, and on these they had erected two solid ston_ouses, fitted up with all the latest improvements known to the buildin_rade. Each was proud of his house; each delighted in welcoming friends an_cquaintances there—this was the first night Cotherstone could remember o_hich it was hateful to him to cross his own threshold. The lighted windows, the smell of good things cooked for supper, brought him no sense o_atisfaction; he had to make a distinct effort to enter and to present a fac_f welcome to his two guests, who were already there, awaiting him.
"Couldn't get in earlier," he said, replying to Lettie's half-anxious, half- playful scoldings. "There was some awkward business turned up this evening—an_s it is, I shall have to run away for an hour after supper—can't be helped.
How do you do, sir?" he went on, giving his hand to the stranger. "Glad to se_ou in these parts—you'll find this a cold climate after London, I'm afraid."
He took a careful look at Bent's friend as they all sat down to supper—out o_heer habit of inspecting any man who was new to him. And after a glance o_wo he said to himself that this young limb of the law was a sharp chap—_een-eyed, alert, noticeable fellow, whose every action and tone denoted grea_ental activity. He was sharper than Bent, said Cotherstone, and in hi_pinion, that was saying a good deal. Bent's ability was on the surface; h_as an excellent specimen of the business man of action, who had ideas out o_he common but was not so much given to deep and quiet thinking as to promp_oing of things quickly decided on. He glanced from one to the other, mentall_omparing them. Bent was a tall, handsome man, blonde, blue-eyed, ready o_ord and laugh; Brereton, a medium-sized, compact fellow, dark of hair an_ye, with an olive complexion that almost suggested foreign origin: the sort, decided Cotherstone, that thought a lot and said little. And forcing himsel_o talk he tried to draw the stranger out, watching him, too, to see if h_dmired Lettie. For it was one of Cotherstone's greatest joys in life to brin_olk to his house and watch the effect which his pretty daughter had on them, and he was rewarded now in seeing that the young man from London evidentl_pplauded his friend's choice and paid polite tribute to Lettie's charm.
"And what might you have been doing with Mr. Brereton since he got dow_esterday?" asked Cotherstone. "Showing him round, of course?"
"I've been tormenting him chiefly with family history," answered Bent, with _aughing glance at his sweetheart. "You didn't know I was raking up everythin_ could get hold of about my forbears, did you? Oh, I've been busy at tha_nnocent amusement for a month past—old Kitely put me up to it."
Cotherstone could barely repress an inclination to start in his chair; h_imself was not sure that he did not show undue surprise.
"What!" he exclaimed. "Kitely? My tenant? What does he know about your family?
"Much more than I do," replied Bent. "The old chap's nothing to do, you know, and since he took up his abode here he's been spending all his time digging u_ocal records—he's a good bit of an antiquary, and that sort of thing. Th_own Clerk tells me Kitely's been through nearly all the old tow_ocuments—chests full of them! And Kitely told me one day that if I liked he'_race our pedigree back to I don't know when, and as he seemed keen, I tol_im to go ahead. He's found out a lot of interesting things in the boroug_ecords that I never heard of."
Cotherstone had kept his eyes on his plate while Bent was talking; he spok_ow without looking up.
"Oh?" he said, trying to speak unconcernedly. "Ah!—then you'll have bee_eeing a good deal of Kitely lately?"
"Not so much," replied Bent. "He's brought me the result of his work now an_hen—things he's copied out of old registers, and so on."
"And what good might it all amount to?" asked Cotherstone, more for the sak_f talking than for any interest he felt. "Will it come to aught?"
"Bent wants to trace his family history back to the Conquest," observe_rereton, slyly. "He thinks the original Bent came over with the Conqueror.
But his old man hasn't got beyond the Tudor period yet."
"Never mind!" said Bent. "There were Bents in Highmarket in Henry th_eventh's time, anyhow. And if one has a pedigree, why not have it properl_earched out? He's a keen old hand at that sort of thing, Kitely. The Tow_lerk says he can read some of our borough charters of six hundred years ag_s if they were newspaper articles."
Cotherstone made no remark on that. He was thinking. So Kitely was in clos_ommunication with Bent, was he?—constantly seeing him, being employed by him?
Well, that cut two ways. It showed that up to now he had taken no advantage o_is secret knowledge and might therefore be considered as likely to pla_traight if he were squared by the two partners. But it also proved that Ben_ould probably believe anything that Kitely might tell him. Certainly Kitel_ust be dealt with at once. He knew too much, and was obviously too clever, t_e allowed to go about unfettered. Cost what it might, he must be attached t_he Mallalieu-Cotherstone interest. And what Cotherstone was concentrating o_ust then, as he ate and drank, was—how to make that attachment in such _ashion that Kitely would have no option but to keep silence. If only he an_allalieu could get a hold on Kitely, such as that which he had on them——
"Well," he said as supper came to an end, "I'm sorry, but I'm forced to leav_ou gentlemen for an hour, at any rate—can't be helped. Lettie, you must tr_o amuse 'em until I come back. Sing Mr. Brereton some of your new songs.
Bent—you know where the whisky and the cigars are—help yourselves—mak_ourselves at home."
"You won't be more than an hour, father?" asked Lettie.
"An hour'll finish what I've got to do," replied Cotherstone, "maybe less—I'l_e as quick as I can, anyway, my lass."
He hurried off without further ceremony; a moment later and he had exchange_he warmth and brightness of his comfortable dining-room for the chill nigh_nd the darkness. And as he turned out of his garden he was thinking stil_urther and harder. So Windle Bent was one of those chaps who have what fol_all family pride, was he? Actually proud of the fact that he had a pedigree, and could say who his grandfather and grandmother were?—things on which mos_eople were as hazy as they were indifferent. In that case, if he was reall_amily-proud, all the more reason why Kitely should be made to keep his tongu_till. For if Windle Bent was going on the game of making out that he was _an of family, he certainly would not relish the prospect of uniting hi_ncient blood with that of a man who had seen the inside of a prison.
Kitely!—promptly and definitely—and for _good_!—that was the ticket.
Cotherstone went off into the shadows of the night—and a good hour had passe_hen he returned to his house. It was then ten o'clock; he afterward_emembered that he glanced at the old grandfather clock in his hall when h_et himself in. All was very quiet in there; he opened the drawing-room doo_o find the two young men and Lettie sitting over a bright fire, and Brereto_vidently telling the other two some story, which he was just bringing to _onclusion.
" … for it's a fact, in criminal practice," Brereton was saying, "that ther_re no end of undiscovered crimes—there are any amount of guilty men goin_bout free as the air, and——"
"Hope you've been enjoying yourselves," said Cotherstone, going forward to th_roup. "I've been as quick as I could."
"Mr. Brereton has been telling us most interesting stories about criminals,"
said Lettie. "Facts—much stranger than fiction!"
"Then I'm sure it's time he'd something to refresh himself with," sai_otherstone hospitably. "Come away, gentlemen, and we'll see if we can't fin_ drop to drink and a cigar to smoke."
He led the way to the dining-room and busied himself in bringing out som_oxes of cigars from a cupboard while Lettie produced decanters and glasse_rom the sideboard.
"So you're interested in criminal matters, sir?" observed Cotherstone as h_ffered Brereton a cigar. "Going in for that line, eh?"
"What practice I've had has been in that line," answered Brereton, with _uiet laugh. "One sort of gets pitchforked into these things, you know, so——"
"What's that?" exclaimed Lettie, who was just then handing the young barriste_ tumbler of whisky and soda which Bent had mixed for him. "Somebody runnin_urriedly up the drive—as if something had happened! Surely you're not goin_o be fetched out again, father?"
A loud ringing of the bell prefaced the entrance of some visitor, whose voic_as heard in eager conversation with a parlourmaid in the hall.
"That's your neighbour—Mr. Garthwaite," said Bent.
Cotherstone set down the cigars and opened the dining-room door. A youngish, fresh-coloured man, who looked upset and startled, came out of the hall, glancing round him inquiringly.
"Sorry to intrude, Mr. Cotherstone," he said. "I say!—that old gentleman yo_et the cottage to—Kitely, you know."
"What of him?" demanded Cotherstone sharply.
"He's lying there in the coppice above your house—I stumbled over him comin_hrough there just now," replied Garthwaite. "He—don't be frightened, Mis_otherstone—he's—well, there's no doubt of it—he's dead! And——"
"And—what?" asked Cotherstone. "What, man? Out with it!"
"And I should say, murdered!" said Garthwaite. "I—yes, I just saw enough t_ay that. Murdered—without a doubt!"