Cotherstone walked out of the dock and the court and the Town Hall amidst _ead silence—which was felt and noticed by everybody but himself. At tha_oment he was too elated, too self-satisfied to notice anything. He held hi_ead very high as he went out by the crowded doorway, and through the crow_hich had gathered on the stairs; he might have been some general returning t_e publicly fêted as he emerged upon the broad steps under the Town Hal_ortico and threw a triumphant glance at the folk who had gathered there t_ear the latest news. And there, in the open air, and with all those starin_yes upon him, he unconsciously indulged in a characteristic action. He ha_aused his best clothes to be sent to him at Norcaster Gaol the previou_ight, and he had appeared in them in the dock. The uppermost garment was a_xpensive overcoat, finished off with a deep fur collar: now, as he stoo_here on the top step, facing the crowd, he unbuttoned the coat, threw it_apels aside, and took a long, deep breath, as if he were inhaling the fre_ir of liberty. There were one or two shrewd and observant folk amongst th_nlookers—it seemed to them that this unconscious action typified tha_otherstone felt himself throwing off the shackles which he had worn, metaphorically speaking, for the last eight days.
But in all that crowd, no one went near Cotherstone. There were many of hi_ellow-members of the Corporation in it—councillors, aldermen—but none of the_pproached him or even nodded to him; all they did was to stare. The news o_hat had happened had quickly leaked out: it was known before he came int_iew that Cotherstone had been discharged—his appearance in that bold, self- assured fashion only led to covert whispers and furtive looks. But suddenly, from somewhere in the crowd, a sneering voice flung a contemptuous taun_cross the staring faces.
"Well done, Cotherstone!—saved your own neck, anyway!"
There was a ripple of jeering laughter at that, and as Cotherstone turne_ngrily in the direction from whence the voice came, another, equall_ontemptuous, lifted itself from another corner of the crowd.
Cotherstone's face flushed angrily—the flush died as quickly away and gav_lace to a sickly pallor. And at that a man who had stood near him beneath th_ortico, watching him inquisitively, stepped nearer and whispered—
"Go home, Mr. Cotherstone!—take my advice, and get quietly away, at once!"
Cotherstone rejected this offer of good counsel with a sudden spasm of furiou_nger.
"You be hanged!" he snarled. "Who's asking you for your tongue? D'ye think I'_fraid of a pack like yon? Who's going to interfere with me, I'd like to know?
Go home yourself!"
He turned towards the door from which he had just emerged—turned to see hi_olicitor and his counsel coming out together. And his sudden anger died down, and his face relaxed to a smile of triumph.
"Now then!" he exclaimed. "Didn't I tell you how it would be, a week since!
Come on across to the Arms and I'll stand a bottle—aye, two, three, if yo_ike!—of the very best. Come on, both of you."
The solicitor, glancing around, saw something of the state of affairs, hurriedly excused himself, and slipped back into the Town Hall by anothe_ntrance. But the barrister, a man who, great as his forensic abilities were, was one of those people who have no private reputation to lose, and of whom i_as well known that he could never withstand the temptation to a bottle o_hampagne, assented readily, and with great good humour. And he an_otherstone, arm in arm, walked down the steps and across the Market Place—an_ehind them the crowd sneered and laughed and indulged in audible remarks.
Cotherstone paid, or affected to pay, no heed. He steered his companion int_he Arms, and turned into the great bow-windowed room which served as mornin_eeting-place for all the better class of loungers and townsmen in Highmarket.
The room was full already. Men had come across from the court, and from th_rowd outside; a babel of talk arose from every corner. But when Cotherston_nd the well-known barrister (so famous in that circuit for his advocacy o_riminals that he had acquired the nickname of the Felons' Friend) entered, _ead silence fell, and men looked at this curious pair and then at each othe_ith significant glances.
In that silence, Cotherstone, seizing a waiter, loudly demanded champagne an_igars: he glared defiantly around him as he supplemented the order with _ommand for the best box of cigars in the house, the best champagne in th_ellars. A loud laugh from some corner of the room broke the silence, and th_aiter, a shrewd fellow who saw how things were, gave Cotherstone a look.
"Come into the small parlour, Mr. Cotherstone," he whispered. "Nobody i_here—you'll be more comfortable, sir."
"All right, then," responded Cotherstone. He glared once more at the compan_round him, and his defiance suddenly broke out in another fashion. "An_riend of mine that likes to join us," he said pointedly, "is welcome. Who'_oming, like?"
There was another hoarse laugh at this, and most of the men there turned thei_acks on Cotherstone and began to talk loudly. But one or two of the les_articular and baser sort, whom Cotherstone would certainly not have calle_riends a week before, nudged each other and made towards the door which th_aiter held invitingly open—it was not every day that the best champagne an_he best cigars were to be had for nothing, and if Cotherstone liked to flin_im money about, what did it matter, so long as they benefited by his folly?
"That's the style!" said Cotherstone, pushing the barrister along. "Brin_wo—bring three bottles," he cried to the waiter. "Big 'uns!—and the best."
An elderly man, one of Cotherstone's fellow-members of the Corporation, cam_orward and caught him by the arm.
"Cotherstone!" he whispered. "Don't be a fool! Think of what's only just over.
Go home, like a good fellow—go quietly home. You're doing no good wit_his—you'll have all the town talking!"
"Hang the town, and you too!" snapped Cotherstone. "You're one of them tha_houted at me in front of the Town Hall, curse you! I'll let you and al_ighmarket see what I care for you. What's it to you if I have a quiet glas_f wine with my friends?"
But there was no quiet drinking of a glass of wine in the parlour to whic_otherstone and his cronies retired. Whenever its door opened Cotherstone'_xcited tones were heard in the big room, and the more sober-minded of the me_ho listened began to shake their heads.
"What's the matter with him?" asked one. "Nobody ever knew him like thi_efore! What's he carrying on in that fashion for?"
"He's excited with getting off," said another. "And that bit of a scen_utside there threw him off his balance. He should ha' been taken straigh_ome. Nice lot he's got with him, too! We all know what yon barrister cha_s—he can drink champagne like water, they say, and for the others—listen t_hat, now!" he added as a burst of excited talking came through the opene_oor. "He'll be in a fine fit state to go home to that daughter of his, _now, if that goes on."
"It mustn't go on," said another, and got up. "I'll go across to Bent's an_et him to come over and take Cotherstone away. Bent's the only man that'l_ave any influence with him."
He went out and crossed the Market Place to Bent's office. But Bent was no_here. By his advice Lettie had gone to stay with some friends until th_ecent proceedings were over in one way or another, and Bent himself, as soo_s Cotherstone had left the court, had hurried away to catch a train to th_own in which she was temporarily staying in order to tell her the news an_ring her home. So the would-be doer-of-good went back disappointed—and as h_eached the hotel, Cotherstone and the barrister emerged from it, parted a_he door with evident great cordiality, and went their several ways. An_otherstone, passing the man who had been to Bent's, stared him in the fac_nd cut him dead.
"It's going to be war to the knife between Cotherstone and the town," remarke_he ambassador, when he re-entered the big room and joined his own circle. "H_assed me just now as if I were one of the paving-stones he trod on! And di_ou see his face as he went out?—egad, instead of looking as if he'd had to_uch to drink, he looked too sober to please me. You mind if something doesn'_appen—yon fellow's desperate!"
"What should he be desperate about?" asked one of the group. "He's saved hi_wn neck!"
"It was that shouting at him when he came out that did it," observed anothe_an quietly. "He's the sort of man to resent aught like that. If Cotherston_hinks public opinion's against him—well, we shall see!"
Cotherstone walked steadily away through the Market Place when he left th_arrister. Whatever the men in the big room might have thought, he had no_een indulging too freely in the little parlour. He had pressed champagne o_he group around him, but the amount he had taken himself had not been grea_nd it had pulled him together instead of intoxicating him. And his excitemen_ad suddenly died down, and he had stopped what might have developed into _rinking bout by saying that he must go home. And once outside, he made fo_is house, and as he went he looked neither to right nor left, and if he me_riend or acquaintance his face became hard as flint.
Cotherstone, indeed, was burning and seething with indignation. The taunt_lung at him as he stood on the Town Hall steps, the looks turned in hi_irection as he walked away with the convivially inclined barrister, th_xpression on the faces of the men in the big room at the Highmarket Arms—al_hese things had stung him to the quick. He knew, whatever else he might hav_een, or was, he had proved a faithful servant to the town. He had been _ealous member of the Corporation, he had taken hold of the financial affair_f the borough when they were in a bad way and had put them in a safe an_rosperous footing; he had worked, thought, and planned for the benefit of th_lace—and this was his reward! For he knew that those taunts, those looks, those half-averted, half-sneering faces meant one thing, and one thin_nly—the Highmarket men believed him equally guilty with Mallalieu, and ha_ome to the conclusion that he was only let off in order that direct evidenc_gainst Mallalieu might be forthcoming. He cursed them deeply and bitterly—an_neered at them in the same breath, knowing that even as they wer_eathercocks, veering this way and that at the least breath of public opinion, so they were also utter fools, wholly unable to see or to conjecture.
The excitement that had seized upon Cotherstone in face of that publi_aunting of him died away in the silence of his own house—when Lettie and Ben_eturned home in the course of the afternoon they found him unusually cool an_ollected. Bent had come with uneasy feelings and apprehensions; one of th_en who had been at the Highmarket Arms had chanced to be in the station whe_e and Lettie arrived, and had drawn him aside and told him of what ha_ccurred, and that Cotherstone was evidently going on the drink. But ther_ere no signs of anything unusual about Cotherstone when Bent found him. H_aid little about the events of the morning to either Bent or Lettie; h_erely remarked that things had turned out just as he had expected and tha_ow perhaps they would get matters settled; he had tea with them; he was bus_ith his books and papers in his own room until supper-time; he showed n_igns of anything unusual at supper, and when an hour later he left the house, saying that he must go down to the office and fetch the accumulate_orrespondence, his manner was so ordinary that Bent saw no reason why h_hould accompany him.
But Cotherstone had no intention of going to his office. He left his hous_ith a fixed determination. He would know once and for all what Highmarke_elt towards and about him. He was not the man to live under suspicion an_verted looks, and if he was to be treated as a suspect and a pariah he woul_now at once.
There was at that time in Highmarket a small and select club, having its hous_n the Market Place, to which all the principal townsmen belonged. Bot_allalieu and Cotherstone had been members since its foundation; Cotherstone, indeed, was its treasurer. He knew that the club would be crowded tha_ight—very well, he would go there and boldly face public opinion. If hi_ellow-members cut him, gave him the cold shoulder, ignored him—all right, h_ould know what to do then.
But Cotherstone never got inside the club. As he set his foot on the threshol_e met one of the oldest members—an alderman of the borough, for whom he had _reat respect. This man, at sight of him, started, stopped, laid a friendl_ut firm hand on his arm, and deliberately turned him round.
"No, my lad!" he said kindly. "Not in there tonight! If you don't know how t_ake care of yourself, let a friend take care of you. Have a bit of sense, Cotherstone! Do you want to expose yourself again to what you got outside th_own Hall this noon! No—no!—go away, my lad, go home—come home with me, if yo_ike—you're welcome!"
The last word softened Cotherstone: he allowed himself to be led away alon_he street.
"I'm obliged to you," he said brusquely. "You mean well. But—do you mean t_ay that those fellows in there—men that know me—are thinking—that!"
"It's a hard, censorious world, this," answered the elder man. "Leave 'e_lone a bit—don't shove yourself on 'em. Come away—come home and have a ciga_ith me."
"Thank you," said Cotherstone. "You wouldn't ask me to do that if you though_s they do. Thank you! But I've something to do—and I'll go and do it a_nce."
He pressed his companion's arm, and turned away—and the other man watching hi_losely, saw him walk off to the police-station, to the superintendent'_rivate door. He saw him enter—and at that he shook his head and went awa_imself, wondering what it was that Cotherstone wanted with the police.
The superintendent, tired by a long day's work, was taking his ease with hi_ipe and his glass when Cotherstone was shown into his parlour. He starte_ith amazement at the sight of his visitor: Cotherstone motioned him back t_is chair.
"Don't let me disturb you," said Cotherstone. "I want a word or two with yo_n private—that's all."
The superintendent had heard of the scene at the hotel, and had had his fear_bout its sequel. But he was quick to see that his visitor was not only sober, but remarkably cool and normal, and he hastened to offer him a glass o_hisky.
"Aye, thank you, I will," replied Cotherstone, seating himself. "It'll be th_irst spirits I've tasted since you locked me up, and I daresay it'll do me n_arm. Now then," he went on as the two settled themselves by the hearth, "_ant a bit of a straight talk with you. You know me—we've been friends. I wan_ou to tell me, straight, plain, truthful—what are Highmarket folk thinkin_nd saying about me? Come!"
The superintendent's face clouded and he shook his head.
"Well, you know what folks will be, Mr. Cotherstone!" he answered. "And yo_now how very ready to say nasty things these Highmarket people are. I'm not _ighmarket man myself, any more than you are, and I've always regarded 'em a_ery bitter-tongued folk, and so——"
"Out with it!" said Cotherstone. "Let's know the truth—never mind what tongue_t comes from. What are they saying?"
"Well," replied the superintendent, reluctantly, "of course I get to hea_verything. If you must have it, the prevailing notion is that both you an_r. Mallalieu had a hand in Kitely's death. They think his murder's at you_oors, and that what happened to Stoner was a by-chance. And if you want th_hole truth, they think you're a deal cleverer than Mallalieu, and that Kitel_robably met his end at your hands, with your partner's connivance. And ther_re those who say that if Mallalieu's caught—as he will be—he'll split on you.
That's all, sir."
"And what do you think?" demanded Cotherstone.
The superintendent shifted uneasily in his chair.
"I've never been able to bring myself to think that either you or Mallalieu
'ud murder a man in cold blood, as Kitely was murdered," he said. "As regard_toner, I've firmly held to it that Mallalieu struck him in a passion.
But—I've always felt this—you, or Mallalieu, or both of you, know more abou_he Kitely affair than you've ever told!"
Cotherstone leaned forward and tapped his host on the arm.
"I do!" he said significantly. "You're right in that. I—do!"
The superintendent laid down his pipe and looked at his visitor gravely.
"Then for goodness sake, Mr. Cotherstone," he exclaimed, "for goodness sake, tell! For as sure as we're sitting here, as things are at present, Mallalieu
'll hang if you don't! If he doesn't hang for Stoner, he will for Kitely, fo_f he gets off over Stoner he'll be re-arrested on the other charge."
"Half an hour ago," remarked Cotherstone, "I shouldn't have minded i_allalieu had been hanged half a dozen times. Revenge is sweet—and I've goo_eason for being revenged on Mallalieu. But now—I'm inclined to tell th_ruth. Do you know why? Why—to show these Highmarket folks that they'r_rong!"
The superintendent sighed. He was a plain, honest, simple man, an_otherstone's reason seemed a strange—even a wicked one—to him. To tell th_ruth merely to spite one's neighbour—a poor, poor reason, when there was lif_t stake.
"Aye, Mr. Cotherstone, but you ought to tell the truth in any case!" he said.
"If you know it, get it out and be done with it. We've had enough troubl_lready. If you can clear things up——"
"Listen!" interrupted Cotherstone. "I'll tell you all I know—privately. If yo_hink good, it can be put into proper form. Very well, then! You remember th_ight of Kitely's murder?"
"Aye, I should think so!" said the superintendent. "Good reason to!"
"Let your mind go back to it, and to what you've since heard of it," sai_otherstone. "You know that on that afternoon Kitely had threatened me an_allalieu with exposure about the Wilchester affair. He wanted to blackmai_s. I told Mallalieu, of course—we were both to think about it till next day.
But I did naught but think—I didn't want exposure for my daughter's sake: I'_a' given anything to avoid it, naturally. I had young Bent and that friend o_is, Brereton, to supper that night—I was so full of thought that I went ou_nd left 'em for an hour or more. The truth was I wanted to get a word wit_itely. I went up the wood at the side of my house towards Kitely'_ottage—and all of a sudden I came across a man lying on the ground—him!—jus_here we found him afterwards."
"Dead?" asked the superintendent.
"Only just," replied Cotherstone. "But he was dead—and I saw what had cause_is death, for I struck a match to look at him. I saw that empty pocket-boo_ying by—I saw a scrap of folded newspaper, too, and I picked it up and later, when I'd read it, I put it in a safe place—I've taken it from that plac_onight for the first time, and it's here—you keep it. Well—I went on, up t_he cottage. The door was open—I looked in. Yon woman, Miss Pett, was at th_able by the lamp, turning over some papers—I saw Kitely's writing on some of
'em. I stepped softly in and tapped her on the arm, and she screamed an_tarted back. I looked at her. 'Do you know that your master's lying dead, murdered, down amongst those trees?' I said. Then she pulled herself together, and she sort of got between me and the door. 'No, I don't!' she says. 'But i_e is, I'm not surprised, for I've warned him many a time about going ou_fter nightfall.' I looked hard at her. 'What're you doing with his paper_here?' I says. 'Papers!' she says. 'They're naught but old bills and thing_hat he gave me to sort.' 'That's a lie!' I says, 'those aren't bills and _elieve you know something about this, and I'm off for the police—to tell!'
Then she pushed the door to behind her and folded her arms and looked at me.
'You tell a word,' she says, 'and I'll tell it all over the town that you an_our partner's a couple of ex-convicts! I know your tale—Kitely'd no secret_rom me. You stir a step to tell anybody, and I'll begin by going straight t_oung Bent—and I'll not stop at that, neither.' So you see where I was—I wa_rightened to death of that old affair getting out, and I knew then tha_itely was a liar and had told this old woman all about it, and—well, _esitated. And she saw that she had me, and she went on, 'You hold you_ongue, and I'll hold mine!' she says. 'Nobody'll accuse me, I know—but if yo_peak one word, I'll denounce you! You and your partner are much more likel_o have killed Kitely than I am! Well, I still stood, hesitating. 'What's t_e done?' I asked at last. 'Do naught,' she said. 'Go home, like a wise man, and know naught about it. Let him be found—and say naught. But if you do, yo_now what to expect.' 'Not a word that I came in here, then?' I said at last.
'Nobody'll get no words from me beyond what I choose to give 'em', she says.
'And—silence about the other?' I said. 'Just as long as you're silent,' sh_ays. And with that I walked out—and I set off towards home by another way.
And just as I was leaving the wood to turn into the path that leads into ou_ane I heard a man coming along and I shrank into some shrubs and watched fo_im till he came close up. He passed me and went on to the cottage—and _lipped back then and looked in through the window, and there he was, and the_ere both whispering together at the table. And it—was this woman'_ephew—Pett, the lawyer."
The superintendent, whose face had assumed various expressions during thi_arrative, lifted his hands in amazement.
"But—but we were in and about that cottage most of that night—afterwards!" h_xclaimed. "We never saw aught of him. I know he was supposed to come dow_rom London the _next_ night, but——"
"Tell you he was there _that_ night!" insisted Cotherstone. "D'ye think _ould mistake him? Well, I went home—and you know what happened afterwards: you know what she said and how she behaved when we went up—and of course _layed my part. But—that bit of newspaper I've given you. I read it carefull_hat night, last thing. It's a column cut out of a Woking newspaper of som_ears ago—it's to do with an inquest in which this woman was concerned—ther_eems to be some evidence that she got rid of an employer of hers by poison.
And d'ye know what I think, now?—I think that had been sent to Kitely, an_e'd plagued her about it, or held it out as a threat to her—and—what is it?"
The superintendent had risen and was taking down his overcoat.
"Do you know that this woman's leaving the town tomorrow?" he said. "An_here's her nephew with her, now—been here for a week? Of course, I understan_hy you've told me all this, Mr. Cotherstone—now that your old affair a_ilchester is common knowledge, far and wide, you don't care, and you don'_ee any reason for more secrecy?"
"My reason," answered Cotherstone, with a grim smile, "is to show Highmarke_olk that they aren't so clever as they think. For the probability is tha_itely was killed by that woman, or her nephew, or both."
"I'm going up there with a couple of my best men, any way," said th_uperintendent. "There's no time to lose if they're clearing out tomorrow."
"I'll come with you," said Cotherstone. He waited, staring at the fire unti_he superintendent had been into the adjacent police-station and had come bac_o say that he and his men were ready. "What do you mean to do?" he asked a_he four of them set out. "Take them?"
"Question them first," answered the superintendent. "I shan't let them get ou_f my sight, any way, after what you've told me, for I expect you're right i_our conclusions. What is it?" he asked, as one of the two men who followe_ehind called him.
The man pointed down the Market Place to the doors of the police-station.
"Two cars just pulled up there, sir," he said. "Came round the corner just no_rom the Norcaster road."
The superintendent glanced back and saw two staring headlights standing nea_is own door.
"Oh, well, there's Smith there," he said. "And if it's anybody wanting me, h_nows where I've gone. Come on—for aught we know these two may have cleare_ut already."
But there were thin cracks of light in the living-room window of the lonel_ottage on the Shawl, and the superintendent whispered that somebody wa_ertainly there and still up. He halted his companions outside the garden gat_nd turned to Cotherstone.
"I don't know if it'll be advisable for you to be seen," he said. "I think ou_est plan'll be for me to knock at the front door and ask for the woman. Yo_ther two go round—quietly—to the back door, and take care that nobody get_ut that way to the moors at the back—if anybody once escapes to those moor_hey're as good as lost for ever on a dark night. Go round—and when you hea_e knock at the front, you knock at the back."
The two men slipped away round the corner of the garden and through th_djacent belt of trees, and the superintendent gently lifted the latch of th_arden gate.
"You keep back, Mr. Cotherstone, when I go to the door," he said. "You neve_now—hullo, what's this?"
Men were coming up the wood behind them, quietly but quickly. One of them, ahead of the others, carried a bull's-eye lamp and in swinging it abou_evealed himself as one of the superintendent's own officers. He caught sigh_f his superior and came forward.
"Mr. Brereton's here, sir, and some gentlemen from Norcaster," he said. "The_ant to see you particularly—something about this place, so I brought them——"
It was at that moment that the sound of the two revolver shots rang out in th_ilence from the stillness of the cottage. And at that the superintenden_ashed forward, with a cry to the others, and began to beat on the front door, and while his men responded with similar knockings at the back he calle_oudly on Miss Pett to open.
It was Mallalieu who at last flung the door open and confronted the amazed an_ondering group clustered thickly without. Every man there shrank bac_ffrighted at the desperation on the cornered man's face. But Mallalieu di_ot shrink, and his hand was strangely steady as he singled out his partne_nd shot him dead—and just as steady as he stepped back and turned th_evolver on himself.
A moment later the superintendent snatched the bull's-eye lamp from his man, and stepped over Mallalieu's dead body and went into the cottage—to come bac_n the instant shivering and sick with shock at the sight his startled eye_ad met.