Brereton, standing back in the room, the cigar which Cotherstone had jus_iven him unlighted in one hand, the glass which Lettie had presented to hi_n the other, was keenly watching the man who had just spoken and the man t_hom he spoke. But all his attention was quickly concentrated on Cotherstone.
For despite a strong effort to control himself, Cotherstone swayed a little, and instinctively put out a hand and clutched Bent's arm. He paled, too—th_udden spasm of pallor was almost instantly succeeded by a quick flush o_olour. He made another effort—and tried to laugh.
"Nonsense, man!" he said thickly and hoarsely. "Murder? Who should want t_ill an old chap like that? It's—here, give me a drink, one of you—that's—_it startling!"
Bent seized a tumbler which he himself had just mixed, and Cotherstone gulpe_ff half its contents. He looked round apologetically.
"I—I think I'm not as strong as I was," he muttered. "Overwork, likely—I'v_een a bit shaky of late. A shock like that——"
"I'm sorry," said Garthwaite, who looked surprised at the effect of his news.
"I ought to have known better. But you see, yours is the nearest house——"
"Quite right, my lad, quite right," exclaimed Cotherstone. "You did the righ_hing. Here!—we'd better go up. Have you called the police?"
"I sent the man from the cottage at the foot of your garden," answere_arthwaite. "He was just locking up as I passed, so I told him, and sent hi_ff."
"We'll go," said Cotherstone. He looked round at his guests. "You'll come?" h_sked.
"Don't you go, father," urged Lettie, "if you're not feeling well."
"I'm all right," insisted Cotherstone. "A mere bit of weakness—that's all. No_hat I know what's to be faced—" he twisted suddenly on Garthwaite—"what make_ou think it's murder?" he demanded. "Murder! That's a big word."
Garthwaite glanced at Lettie, who was whispering to Bent, and shook his head.
"Tell you when we get outside," he said. "I don't want to frighten you_aughter."
"Come on, then," said Cotherstone. He hurried into the hall and snatched up a_vercoat. "Fetch me that lantern out of the kitchen," he called to th_arlourmaid. "Light it! Don't you be afraid, Lettie," he went on, turning t_is daughter. "There's naught to be afraid of—now. You gentlemen coming wit_s?"
Bent and Brereton had already got into their coats: when the maid came wit_he lantern, all four men went out. And as soon as they were in the garde_otherstone turned on Garthwaite.
"How do you know he's murdered?" he asked. "How could you tell?"
"I'll tell you all about it, now we're outside," answered Garthwaite. "I'_een over to Spennigarth, to see Hollings. I came back over the Shawl, an_ade a short cut through the wood. And I struck my foot agains_omething—something soft, you know—I don't like thinking of that! And so _truck a match, and looked, and saw this old fellow—don't like thinking o_hat, either. He was laid there, a few yards out of the path that runs acros_he Shawl at that point. I saw he was dead—and as for his being murdered, well, all I can say is, he's been strangled! That's flat."
"Strangled!" exclaimed Bent.
"Aye, without doubt," replied Garthwaite. "There's a bit of rope round hi_eck that tight that I couldn't put my little finger between it and him! Bu_ou'll see for yourselves—it's not far up the Shawl. You never heard anything, Mr. Cotherstone?"
"No, we heard naught," answered Cotherstone. "If it's as you say, there'd b_aught to hear."
He had led them out of his grounds by a side-gate, and they were now in th_hick of the firs and pines which grew along the steep, somewhat rugged slop_f the Shawl. He put the lantern into Garthwaite's hand.
"Here—you show the way," he said. "I don't know where it is, of course."
"You were going straight to it," remarked Garthwaite. He turned to Brereton, who was walking at his side. "You're a lawyer, aren't you?" he asked. "I hear_hat Mr. Bent had a lawyer friend stopping with him just now—we hear all th_its of news in a little place like Highmarket. Well—you'll understand, likely—it hadn't been long done!"
"You noticed that?" said Brereton.
"I touched him," replied Garthwaite. "His hand and cheek were—just warm. H_ouldn't have been dead so very long—as I judged matters. And—here he is!"
He twisted sharply round the corner of one of the great masses of limeston_hich cropped out amongst the trees, and turned the light of the lantern o_he dead man.
"There!" he said in a hushed voice. "There!"
The four men came to a halt, each gazing steadily at the sight they had com_o see. It needed no more than a glance to assure each that he was looking o_eath: there was that in Kitely's attitude which forbade any othe_ossibility.
"He's just as I found him," whispered Garthwaite. "I came round this rock fro_here, d'ye see, and my foot knocked against his shoulder. But, you know, he'_een dragged here! Look at that!"
Brereton, after a glance at the body, had looked round at its surroundings.
The wood thereabouts was carpeted—thickly carpeted—with pine needles; they la_everal inches thick beneath the trunks of the trees; they stretched right u_o the edge of the rock. And now, as Garthwaite turned the lantern, they sa_hat on this soft carpet there was a great slur—the murderer had evidentl_ragged his victim some yards across the pine needles before depositing hi_ehind the rock. And at the end of this mark there were plain traces of _truggle—the soft, easily yielding stuff was disturbed, kicked about, upheaved, but as Brereton at once recognized, it was impossible to trac_ootprints in it.
"That's where it must have been," said Garthwaite. "You see there's a bit of _ath there. The old man must have been walking along that path, and whoeve_id it must have sprung out on him there—where all those marks are—and whe_e'd strangled him dragged him here. That's how I figure it, Mr. Cotherstone."
Lights were coming up through the wood beneath them, glancing from point t_oint amongst the trees. Then followed a murmur of voices, and three or fou_en came into view—policemen, carrying their lamps, the man whom Garthwait_ad sent into the town, and a medical man who acted as police surgeon.
"Here!" said Bent, as the newcomers advanced and halted irresolutely. "Thi_ay, doctor—there's work for you here—of a sort, anyway. Of course, he'_ead?"
The doctor had gone forward as soon as he caught sight of the body, and h_ropped on his knees at its side while the others gathered round. In the adde_ight everybody now saw things more clearly. Kitely lay in a heap—just as _an would lie who had been unceremoniously thrown down. But Brereton's shar_yes saw at once that after he had been flung at the foot of the mass of roc_ome hand had disarranged his clothing. His overcoat and under coat had bee_orn open, hastily, if not with absolute violence; the lining of one trouser_ocket was pulled out; there were evidences that his waistcoat had bee_nbuttoned and its inside searched: everything seemed to indicate that th_urderer had also been a robber.
"He's not been dead very long," said the doctor, looking up. "Certainly no_ore than three-quarters of an hour. Strangled? Yes!—and by somebody who ha_ore than ordinary knowledge of how quickly a man may be killed in that way!
Look how this cord is tied—no amateur did that."
He turned back the neckcloth from the dead man's throat, and showed the other_ow the cord had been slipped round the neck in a running-knot and fastene_ightly with a cunning twist.
"Whoever did this had done the same thing before—probably more than once," h_ontinued. "No man with that cord round his neck, tightly knotted like that, would have a chance—however free his hands might be. He'd be dead before h_ould struggle. Does no one know anything about this? No more than that?" h_ent on, when he had heard what Garthwaite could tell. "Well, this is murder, anyway! Are there no signs of anything about here?"
"Don't you think his clothing looks as if he had been robbed?" said Brereton, pointing to the obvious signs. "That should be noted before he's moved."
"I've noted that, sir," said the police-sergeant, who had bent over the bod_hile the doctor was examining it. "There's one of his pockets turned insid_ut, and all his clothing's been torn open. Robbery, of course—that's wha_t's been—murder for the sake of robbery!"
One of the policemen, having satisfied his curiosity stepped back and began t_earch the surroundings with the aid of his lamp. He suddenly uttered a shar_xclamation.
"Here's something!" he said, stooping to the foot of a pine-tree and pickin_p a dark object. "An old pocket-book—nothing in it, though."
"That was his," remarked Cotherstone. "I've seen it before. He used to carr_t in an inner pocket. Empty, do you say?—no papers?"
"Not a scrap of anything," answered the policeman, handing the book over t_is sergeant, and proceeding to search further. "We'd best to see if there'_ny footprints about."
"You'd better examine that path, then," said Garthwaite. "You'll find n_rints on all this pine-needle stuff—naught to go by, anyway—it's too thic_nd soft. But he must have come along that path, one way or another—I've me_im walking in here of an evening, more than once."
The doctor, who had exchanged a word or two with the sergeant, turned t_otherstone.
"Wasn't he a tenant of yours?" he asked. "Had the cottage at the top of th_hawl here. Well, we'd better have the body removed there, and some one shoul_o up and warn his family."
"There's no family," answered Cotherstone. "He'd naught but a housekeeper—Mis_ett. She's an elderly woman—and not likely to be startled, from what I'v_een of her."
"I'll go," said Bent. "I know the housekeeper." He touched Brereton's elbow, and led him away amongst the trees and up the wood. "This is a strang_ffair!" he continued when they were clear of the others. "Did you hear wha_r. Rockcliffe said?—that whoever had done it was familiar with that sort o_hing!"
"I saw for myself," replied Brereton. "I noticed that cord, and the knot o_t, at once. A man whose neck was tied up like that could be thrown down, thrown anywhere, left to stand up, if you like, and he'd be literall_elpless, even if, as the doctor said, he had the use of his hands. He'd b_nconscious almost at once—dead very soon afterwards. Murder?—I should thin_o!—and a particularly brutal and determined one. Bent!—whoever killed tha_oor old fellow was a man of great strength and of—knowledge! Knowledge, min_ou!—he knew the trick. You haven't any doubtful character in Highmarket wh_as ever lived in India, have you?"
"India! Why India?" asked Bent.
"Because I should say that the man who did that job has learned some of th_ndian tricks with cords and knots," answered Brereton. "That murder'_uggestive of Thuggeeism in some respects. That the cottage?" he went on, pointing to a dim light ahead of him. "This housekeeper, now?—is she the sor_ho'll take it quietly?"
"She's as queer a character as the old fellow himself was," replied Bent, a_hey cleared the wood and entered a hedge-enclosed garden at the end of whic_tood an old-fashioned cottage. "I've talked to her now and then when callin_ere—I should say she's a woman of nerve."
Brereton looked narrowly at Miss Pett when she opened the door. She carried _allow candle in one hand and held it high above her head to throw a light o_he callers; its dim rays fell more on herself than on them. A tall, gaunt, elderly woman, almost fleshless of face, and with a skin the colour of ol_archment, out of which shone a pair of bright black eyes; the oddity of he_ppearance was heightened by her head-dress—a glaring red and yello_andkerchief tightly folded in such a fashion as to cover any vestige of hair.
Her arms, bare to the elbow, and her hands were as gaunt as her face, bu_rereton was quick to recognize the suggestion of physical strength in th_uscles and sinews under the parchment-like skin. A strange, odd-looking woma_ltogether, he thought, and not improved by the fact that she appeared to hav_ost all her teeth, and that a long, sharp nose and prominent chin almost me_efore her sunken lips.
"Oh, it's you, is it, Mr. Bent?" she said, before either of the young me_ould speak. "Mr. Kitely's gone out for his regular bedtime constitution—h_ill have that, wet or fine, every night. But he's much longer than usual, and——"
She stopped suddenly, seeing some news in Bent's face, and her own contracte_o a questioning look.
"Is there aught amiss?" she asked. "Has something happened him? Aught that'_erious? You needn't be afraid to speak, Mr. Bent—there's naught can upset o_righten me, let me tell you—I'm past all that!"
"I'm afraid Mr. Kitely's past everything, too, then," said Bent. He looke_teadily at her for a moment, and seeing that she understood, went on.
"They're bringing him up, Miss Pett—you'd better make ready. You won't b_larmed—I don't think there's any doubt that he's been murdered."
The woman gazed silently at her visitors; then, nodding her turbaned head, sh_rew back into the cottage.
"It's what I expected," she muttered. "I warned him—more than once. Well—le_hem bring him, then."
She vanished into a side-room, and Bent and Brereton went down the garden an_et the others, carrying the dead man. Cotherstone followed behind the police, and as he approached Bent he pulled him by the sleeve and drew him aside.
"There's a clue!" he whispered. "A clue, d'ye hear—a strong clue!"