- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER IX. THE DEERINGS.
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BRUCE DEERING bore the news which Mr. Baird brought him, manfully, with high courage.
"I expected it must happen," he said. "I don't deny that it hurts. And I feel, somehow, that the worst is yet to come. But I am not the first innocent man who has been charged with a crime; I shall not be the last. I hope you will keep this from my uncle as long as possible."
"I mean to. At the same time I am glad that the ladies are with him. I have been thinking that it might be well to write to Miss | | 52 Rodney and give her a word of warning. She is so bright and so clear headed, she might keep some stray newspapers from telling him too much."
A wave of colour swept over the young man's cheek. "Miss Rodney is not in New York," he said, with his face averted.
"She left New York two weeks ago," went on the young man. "She is in Baltimore."
"Ah! With her cousin?''
"I think I will write to her. I wish she were in New York. Some one ought to know the truth and be prepared to break it to Deering when the time comes."
Bruce opened his lips as if about to differ from him, then
"I'm glad he is not here," he said; "I don't want to be the cause of any shock or injury to Uncle Lys. That would be worse than the rest."
The banker looked at him admiringly.
"Some men in your place would think of self only at such a crisis as this," he said.
Sheriff Carton was as good as his word. No grass was permitted to grow under the feet that went to and fro, raising up barriers between Bruce Deering and the world beyond Pomfret. Within twenty-four hours after his talk with the banker in the coroner's office, all outlets were guarded, and, to do him justice, the work was thoroughly done.
"There will be a deal of useless watching," said Bruce Deering when he heard of this. "I shall not stir from my place in Pomfret. They will not have to search for me when I am wanted."
When the knowledge that Valentine Rodney was in Baltimore suggested to Mr. Baird the idea of writing to her, he went at once to his study intent upon this; but after a moment's thought he touched the bell and sent for his new man.
Murtagh, who had been comfortably established in snug rooms over the carriage house, came promptly; and when he had heard his employer's idea, said at once:
"I suppose you hope, by informing this young lady of the facts, to induce her to go back to New York of her own accord. You think that two women may accomplish what one cannot."
"I know that Brenda is constantly with her husband; while Valentine, having more freedom, might intercept unpleasant or dangerous messages before they reach Deering."
"Then," said the detective, "don't write her; telegraph. Did you telegraph to Mr. Deering?"
"By no means. I wrote. I would have sent such news by stage if it were possible."
"Then telegraph the young lady by all means."
Valentine Rodney, light of heart, and with a song upon her lips was coming leisurely downstairs, on her way to luncheon, a charming | | 53 picture in a dainty tea-gown, when a servant handed her a telegram, and the song died upon her lips.
"Uncle Lys!" she faltered, and tore open the envelope with trembling fingers, to read these words:
"Matchin murdered in bank. Bruce D——accused of crime. Your uncle must not be told of last. Letter follows.—BAIRD."
She stood still for a moment, with the paper held tightly in her hand, her face pallid. Then she went slowly downstairs. A moment after she entered the little morning-room, where luncheon was spread, and said to her cousin, while she took her place at the table,
"Bess, I must start for New York in an hour. Wait; let me finish. I am needed there; Uncle Lys is in an unsafe condition. I have just received a telegram with the information. Jane is packing for me; but I can't wait for any baggage. You will please send it to-night, and, Bess, I look for a letter from Pomfret—an important letter; please send that without delay. Give me a cup of tea, and don't make me talk, Bess dear; I'm worried."
"You poor thing!" said kindly Cousin Bess. "You do think so much of him."
"I!" Valentine's face flushed hotly. "Bess, how dare you?"
"How dare I say that you love Uncle Lys! Why, Val! Oh, Val Rodney! Whom did you think I meant?"
"Be quiet, Bess. I—I was not paying attention! I did not—understand!" cried Valentine, and sweet-natured Cousin Bess changed the subject.
It was nearing evening of the second day, following upon the murder of Joe Matchin, when Lysander Deering and his fair young wife came in from a drive through Central Park, and entered the little reception room of their luxurious suite in one of New York's princely hotels. The day had been a perfect one, the drive exhilarating, and the pair were in a happy mood.
"A fine-looking man "—that was the phrase oftenest applied to Lysander Deering when he appeared among strangers. His hair had whitened when he was yet young, but his eyes were bright, his fine face almost without a wrinkle, and his tall form erect, and well-filled out, without portliness, in spite of the newly-developed and menacing disease, which, as yet, had made no inroad upon flesh and colour, and but little upon strength.
Fair and stately was the young wife at his side, and a certain sweet and sober dignity, a natural womanliness of movement and gesture served, or seemed, to lessen the difference in their ages—a difference which one who was much with them soon grew to forget, such good comrades they were; so much there was in common between them. And small wonder, for Lysander Deering possessed a richly stored mind, and he had early seen, in the little friend of his saucy ward, a rare nature, with a grasp and strength of mind beyond her years. When, in those days, he gave Valentine dolls, he gave to Brenda books; and both girls were satisfied. As Brenda grew older he was not disappointed in the estimate he had made of her mental ability; and now | | 54 he found in her, not only a beautiful and devoted wife, but a charming companion as well.
"How well I feel, Princess!" he said, using the title which he had bestowed upon her in her childhood, and which suited her so well that it had almost usurped her name upon the lips of those who loved her.
"I feel strong too." He had been walking about the room, as if not yet ready to forego the pleasure of movement, and was watching her with open admiration as she drew off her gloves, and laid aside her dainty bonnet, standing near the low mantel. Turning to place the gloves upon it, she uttered an exclamation—
"A letter," she said, and then after glancing at it; "for you, dear,and—yes—it's Mr. Baird's big clear handwriting."
He threw himself down in a big lounging chair near her.
"Read it aloud," he said.
"Perhaps it's a business letter."
"Well—the doctor has appointed you my man of business. I am not to be worried, you remember," smiling as he held out his hand to her.
As he drew her toward him, she seated herself upon the broad arm of his chair, and deftly removing the envelope, cast her eyes down the open page.
"Then I may think it best not to let you hear it at all," she returned in the same light tone; "you are very much in my power, sir—" she broke off suddenly and with such a queer little sound in her throat, that he started and turned to look at her.
The smile had faded from her face; she looked strangely startled.
"What is it?" he asked quickly.
"Dear," she began, laying her hand upon his shoulder, "promise me that you will not let this excite you. There has been some trouble at the bank—"
"Oh I" At the word "trouble" he had lifted himself erect and an anxious look came into his eyes. "At the bank? Then it's nothing wrong at Beechwood or with Bruce?"
"No, dear," taking his hand in hers.
"And Baird must be all right, as that's his writing?"
"Yes." She was looking again at the letter.
"Then, don't fear to tell me what it is, Princess."
"The bank has been attacked, dear."
"Matchin sent them about their business, I'll wager."
"Hurt!—wife. There's more to come; don't fear for me. The truth is best for me now. Read, no, tell me the worst at once."
"I'll read the passage, dear; it's to the point." She gave him another tender, anxious glance and began:
"It was near midnight that some young men, who had been at a late supper, discovered the bank open, a light within, and poor Matchin lying upon the floor."
"Oh!" His grasp upon her hand tightened; she turned again from the letter to look at him.| | 55
"It is very sad, dear."
"Go on, Brenda. Was he dead?" His tone was almost stern; she felt no tremor of the hand upon her own, and she read on.
"His face was bloodstained, he had evidently been attacked; he was breathing his last when they found him. They gave the alarm at once. There was no sign of the murderer; all was done that could be, and I sent at once for a detective. Liscom says you must not come. All will be done as you would wish it, and you have yourself and your wife to think of. I will write you in full to-morrow. The bank has lost thirty odd thousands."
She dropped the letter and took both his hands in hers. He was lying back against the cushions, calm, still, but very pale.
"Dear," she said gently, "if they needed you—if poor Joe Matchin were dying—we would both go to him, poor faithful soul! But, you see, your duty is to yourself, and,—" putting her soft lips to his brow, "and to me. Say that you won't think of going—not yet."
At nine o'clock Brenda Deering sat near the low couch where her husband lay. The shock of the news, so gently broken, had not been without its effect, and while it had startled him less than she had feared, the very effort to remain calm had left him weary and weaker than he wished to own. He had yielded to her with open reluctance after some argument, and at last, tired, and more nervous and anxious than he would have her know, had allowed himself to be covered with a soft, light rug, and lay with his face turned from the light, not yet asleep, although Brenda had administered a soothing potion, which he had swallowed more willingly than she knew.
She sat beside a softly-shaded lamp, with an open book in her hand, but she was not reading; she was thinking of poor Joe Matchin and his unhappy end.
"Pardon me. May I speak with you a moment?" It was her maid who had entered so quietly, and Brenda bent toward her husband.
"Are you sleeping, dear?"
"No, Brenda, but go to Rose. I shall be sleeping soon, I think." He did not stir, and she dropped a light kiss upon his upturned temple.
"I will be back very soon," she murmured, and followed Rose from the room.
"What is it, Rose?"
The girl put a hand upon her lip, crossed the corridor, and opened the door opposite the little reception room.
"Someone is in there," she whispered.
It was the room lately occupied by Valentine Rodney, and Brenda entered hastily.
The door shut softly. "That is my part," said Rose to herself as she turned away. "But I wonder what has brought Miss Valentine back so soon?"
"Brenda," said Valentine, when the greetings had been exchanged, "have you heard—"
"About poor Matchin? Yes, dear."
"And uncle? How did he bear it?"| | 56
"Better than I dared to hope. He is lying down now, but quite calm. He feels it, though—deeply."
The girl's face looked wan and strained.
"Heavens! How did you get the news, Brenda?"
"By letter—from Mr. Baird."
"A letter! Oh! then, I can hear something more! I only had this."
She snatched at something in the pocket of her jacket, and put it in Brenda's hand.
"A telegram!" Brenda opened it, looked, gasped, looked again, and uttered a cry. "Bruce! Oh, my God; my God!"
"Why?" Valentine caught away the telegram and grasped her cousin firmly by the arm. "Brenda, what does it mean? Did you not know? What do you know?"
"Not that!" Brenda sank down upon the couch near at hand, and for a moment seemed struggling for self-control, then—
"Mr. Baird wrote us that Joe Matchin had been murdered," she said, "nothing more. Sit here, Val."
Miss Rodney, who had remained standing, with that same drawn look upon her face, moved weakly to her cousin's side, and dropped into the seat indicated.
I see," she said. "It was to save uncle the shock;" and then for long moments both were silent. At last,
"It is horrible!" murmured Brenda.
"It is false!" hissed Valentine. "Oh, Brenda—he said he would write, is there a letter yet?"
"It's too soon, Val. Ah, I understand Mr. Baird. He dared not write the truth, even to me, but he knew you! He knew you would come if we were in trouble."
"We!" gasped Valentine, and then she flung out her arms, and throwing herself, face downward, across her cousin's lap, sobbed wildly.
When the tempest had subsided, and they could talk more calmly, they tried to imagine the situation, to piece out the hateful story which lay between that letter, which had omitted more than it had told, and the telegram which had told so much, and yet so little.
One thing alone seemed clear to them. They must keep the news from Mr. Deering as long as possible.
It was very hard to dissemble during the two or three days of comparative quiet which followed. But Lysander Deering was preoccupied, and anxious, and this made him less observant than usual. The letter which was promised him came duly, but, after all, it told very little. A detective was at work, and Carton also; the town was up in arms, and it promised to be a long chase. It was not a very satisfactory letter. And "somehow," Mr. Deering felt and declared, "it seemed to leave out more than it said."
Valentine's letter came also, and this was definite enough. But it only made the two, who must not share the horrors it contained with the anxious invalid, more unhappy. It doubled their watchfulness, | | 57 their anxiety, and their fear and dread of the day when they could no longer keep the truth from Lysander Deering.
"Oh!" grieved Brenda," I fear it so! It will kill him! It will kill him!"
"If I did not feel somehow that we do not know Uncle Lys; that he will rise above his own physical self, and be strong for Bruce's sake, I should lose all courage," said Valentine. "Oh, I wish the murderer could be hunted down!"
It was a week from the day of Joe Matchin's murder, that Valentine entered her cousin's dressing-room one morning and said, without preliminary of any sort,
"Brenda, I am going to Pomfret."
"Yes, I! Uncle would go if he knew, and could travel. You would go if your place were not here. We are Bruce Deering's nearest friends, and it is time that Pomfret should know that we stand by him. I can't do much, but I can show myself his friend." For a moment the two women faced each other, one face full of earnest admiration, the other pale and haughtily defiant, as if expecting and fearing opposition.
But Brenda Deering threw her arms about her cousin's neck, and kissed her with vehement enthusiasm. "I shall almost die without you, Val," she cried, "but I would not keep you if I could! You are as brave as you are lovely, and I hope—I hope that Bruce Deering being what he is, and I being you, I should do the same! I will telegraph at once to Mrs. Merton to come home, and to Sarita to open the house, and have the carriage waiting for you."
Valentine could not set out until evening; there were earlier trains, but to go sooner might seem to Mr. Deering too precipitate. Besides, she did not wish to arrive in Pomfret at night. And so at noon they were all together in the little saloon, when a servant of the house entered, and, before they saw what he was about to do, had dropped a letter directly into Mr. Deering's open palm.
Brenda made a little movement forward, but he clasped his fingers about the missive, and smiled as he held it away from her.
"Ah, my policeman, you have been outwitted for once,"he said almost gaily, as he glanced down at the letter." Really! It says, to be delivered into my own hand! And it is post marked here, in New York."
Brenda breathed a sigh of relief. Let it be what it would, so long as it were not from Pomfret.
He tore open the brown wrapper and unfolded the sheet, read a few words, and started violently, his face flushing, and then turning deadly white. The two young women looked in alarm at one another, and Brenda arose and stood waiting, in a tremor of anxiety, to learn the meaning of this agitation.
Then, to their terror and amazement, they saw him clench his fist, bring it down heavily upon the arm of his chair, and spring to his feet as lightly as a boy, his face white and set.
"Brenda!" he cried, "ring for John, and tell Rose to pack at once.| | 58
We go to Pomfret with Valentine! God! They have accused BRUCE DEERING of MURDER!" The letter fluttered to his feet. He swayed and would have fallen but for the two girls who caught him and placed him again in his chair.
Two hours later, Brenda stood alone with the great physician whose word she waited with bated breath.
"Doctor, is it possible? Dare we venture? He looks deathly. And you said—"
"I said that a sudden shock would be dangerous; very dangerous. Now, madam, there are people who live, when Nature seems exhausted, purely upon their will. A man's will is sometimes master of his physical self. A strong will is the physician's best friend, and next to a strong will, in certain crises, comes Pride. If your husband had learned of the death of a dear one, in the same condition in which this news found him, I could not now save him. He might not have survived the first hour. Or, if he were lacking in masterful will power, in strong pride, his life would now be at stake. Mind, I do not now say that he is safe. But I do say that, having rallied so strangely, and being in his present frame of mind, there is but one thing to do. He must not be crossed. It may hurt him to go, but it will be worse if he does not go. He may reach his home prostrated; but I will not answer for his life if he is thwarted in any way. The shock has already undone the good work of weeks, but, if he is not thwarted now, the worst may be over. These mental shocks work strangely. Sometimes a man like him, carried out of himself, forgetting himself, conquers the flesh by sheer strength of the spirit. We are dealing with such a nature. Besides, when all is said, how can you or I restrain him? He is sane, stronger than he has been for days; master, indeed, of the situation."
"Oh! That is true!" she sighed.
"All the same you must not relax your vigilance. You must set out prepared for a break-down. Believe me, dear Mrs. Deering, we can only hope for the best now. The rest is taken out of our hands."
"And we may rely upon your friend?"
"Doctor Ware can do all that I could do and more. He is younger, stronger."
The door opened and Valentine came in with an anxious face. "Is it settled?" she asked.
"It is settled," said Brenda; "we go, and Doctor Ware goes with us."
Meantime, in Pomfret on this same day, and at the very hour when the great doctor was pronouncing his dictum, Detective Murtagh, who, for the time, had taken upon himself the name of John Ross, was riding one of Mr. Baird's fine horses about the streets of Pomfret, and leading another. Both animals were blanketed, and as they walked along, lightly guided, there could not have been found a more honest-looking jockey, nor one more efficient, than their rider. He rode with careless ease, swaying to the movement of the horse he bestrode, and he whistled softly as he went. No could have guessed that he was thinking deeply, earnestly.| | 59
He had been a week in Pomfret, and since the evening of the finding of the half handkerchief at the bank, he had been very much en evidence at the Baird stables, or riding and driving the Baird horses. Sometimes he drove the banker, and every day he exercised a certain pair of young horses; and, when he was out with these he was pretty sure to be seen, at some time during the outing, riding slowly past the office of the coroner, the hotel, where Sheriff Carton had established headquarters, the bank, the square of which Miss Wardell's house constituted a corner, and the whole length of Main Street, only pausing and turning about at the south end when he had reached the pretty street which turned off in an eccentric fashion to climb the little hill, at the top of which lived Captain Frazier, the giver of the supper which had caused the presence of certain witnesses upon the scene of Joe Matchin's murder. Going northward, he only turned when he had reached Beechwood, and passed its utmost boundary.
To-day he had nearly finished his ride, and was now moving north-ward in the direction of Beechwood, when he heard a shrill "halloo" behind him, and, looking back, saw a boy, whom he knew to belong to the staff of the telegraph office, hurrying to overtake him, a yellow envelope in his hand.
Murtagh had not been backward, when he saw an opportunity for making acquaintances without arousing suspicion. And Mr. Baird had already sent him more than once to the telegraph office. So, upon seeing the boy, he stopped promptly, and said good-naturedly—
"Want a lift?".
"Yes." The boy came panting up. "How fur 'er ye goin'?"
"About twenty miles; where do you want to travel?"
"Shucks! ye ain't goin' no wheres, but ye might let me ride's fur as Beechwood."
"All right, seeing it's you. But you want to keep mum about it." He had sprung from his horse as he spoke, and he lifted the half-grown boy to the back of the led animal. "Now, stick on, sonny," he said, as he remounted. "Who lives at Beechwood?"
"Ain't much of anybody lives there now," said the boy."But I guess this 'ere message is ter tell the old woman that someone's comin' home short meter."
At the gate of Beechwood the sham jockey deposited his passenger." Sorry I can't take you back, sonny," he said; "but I'm going the other way." He rode on, but, instead of turning about as usual where the road branched to right and left, he turned to the left and rode out of sight behind a high hedge.
Not far, however. He turned back soon, and stopped at the corner, still hidden from the sight of Beechwood by the hedge. Riding close to this, and peering through, he saw his late passenger hastening townward; and, as he was about to remount, a woman came out at the side door, ran down the steps, and in the direction of the stables.
"Humph!" muttered the detective, "I may be a fool for my pains, but I think I'll wait."
Ten minutes later he saw a small horse attached to a covered phaeton led to the door by a groom, and instantly the woman came out and climbed briskly into the vehicle. He could only see that she | | 60 was small and quick of gesture; her face being hidden by a thick grey veil.
As she drove the pony out through the swinging gate, he remounted his horse, and, when she had turned townward, driving at a brisk pace, he followed, not far behind.
Half way to town, a little cloud of dust advancing toward them dissolved, and the detective, now quite close behind the phaeton, saw the mounted figure of a lady galloping toward them; as they neared each other, he saw that the lady was Miss Wardell, and, a moment later, he was forced to pull up his horses with a jerk.
The phaeton had stopped short, and as Miss Wardell drew up her horse beside it, he heard its occupant say, in a decidedly foreign accent,
"Ah! mees, I was going to you this moment."
Miss Wardell stopped her speech with a quick gesture, and the woman became aware, for the first time, that someone was near.
The detective touched his cap as he turned out to pass them, but he managed to make his led horse behave so ill, that he was obliged to turn once and again in the road, so near them that his quick eye saw Miss Wardell pass a small, white something, suspiciously like a note, to the woman in the phaeton.
He could tarry no longer, and so went on, riding at the same slow walk as when he had taken up the messenger-boy.
Not far from the place where the town proper began, with its houses thickly set, he heard the sound of swift hoofs, and Miss Wardell flew past him, and, a moment later, he saw a small figure spring up from the turf beneath a tree, and come out to the road to meet him, was his first thought; but the sudden stopping of Miss Wardell's horse undeceived him. He could see that she talked to the lad earnestly for a few moments, and that she put something into his hand.
Then the boy set off at a rapid pace, and she, riding slowly, and keeping near him, followed on, turning to look over her shoulder as she went.
When her face was again turned townward, the detective looked back. The phaeton had turned, and was half-way back to Beech-wood. At the first corner Murtagh took a side street, and was rewarded, before he had lost sight of the figures on Main Street, by seeing the lady ride past the messenger with a slight gesture, and put her horse to a brisk canter. Instantly his own horses were at a standstill.
A moment later he turned back, and when he saw the horse and its graceful rider disappear in the direction of her home, he rode boldly after the boy who was yet in sight.
The boy turned and stopped.
"I say, you walked back, haven't you?"
"Well, did you happen to see a horse-shoe along the road? It's an extra fancy and I hate to lose it; it's bad luck to lose a horse-shoe I Say, get up, and ride back a piece with me, so you can hold these nags if we find it; I can't hang on to them both. I won't lose you any time, for I'll take you plum to the office."| | 61
The boy "hesitated—and was lost."
There was no horse-shoe found, but Murtagh was rewarded as he had hoped to be.
"Better get up in front of me," he said affably. "We can gallop then."
The boy wore a "roundabout," unbuttoned because of the warmth, and, from a side pocket, where he had seem them placed, Murtagh could see two papers sticking out. Presently he said:
"Look here! I can't guide and look too; you take the reins, and I'll keep a sharper look-out."
A moment later the side pocket was empty, a proud boy was guiding the handsome horses with two tightly gripped hands, and, behind him, Murtagh was reading the following harmless telegrams:—
"Mrs. Merton in Buffalo. Am alone. What shall I do?"SARITA." "MISS VALENTINE RODNEY, etc., etc.
"Just met S——. Much worried. Please come to me. Will meet you."ORA WARDELL."
"Well!' said Murtagh to himself as he restored the papers to their place, "the matter's simple enough, but the method! Hum! and I've heard somebody relate that the two young ladies were at one time rivals I I'd like to see the other document. The key, perhaps, is there."
While riding Banker Baird's horses about Pomfret, Mr. Murtagh had found time to elaborate some very strange theories.
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