- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XI. THREADS HERE AND THERE.
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THREADS HERE AND THERE.
MR. BAIRD sat pondering long over the detective's words. "He's a queer fellow," mused the banker, "and knows his business without a doubt. But I don't see how he can be so certain about Sarita."
If Mr. Baird could have followed Ferriss Murtagh from the time when he had called him into his office and given him a commission to Beechwood earlier in the day, he might have been enlightened. But Murtagh had no mind to take his employer into his full confidence yet.
"Someone must go to Beechwood," Mr. Baird had said to him not long after dinner. "I have persuaded Mr. Deering and his wife to stay here until to-morrow, and Miss Rodney will remain with Miss Wardell, but I have promised to send word to Sarita at once, and to find out why there was no carriage in waiting; of course the telegram was not received, for some reason; but they want to be sure. I thought you might like to get a nearer view of Beechwood. It seems to have an interest for you."
"It has," Murtagh had answered promptly; "it's the very bit of luck I want."
Half-an-hour after this, he was lounging near the telegraph office, watching for the chance which came soon. He had not been long upon the depôt platform, in plain view from the windows of the telegraph office, when the boy, who had been favoured with a ride upon | | 67 one of "Banker Baird's dandy trotters," saw him, and came strolling out, as if unconscious who was there.
They gravitated together at once, and Murtagh began, with a perfidious smile, and no loss of time:
"Hullo, Bub! I was sort of looking for you; thought you might like to help me exercise those fiery horses again. They're pretty stiff to manage alone."
"Shucks!"said the boy derisively; and then his countenance fell. "Darn it!" he grumbled. "I only wish't I could! But I ain't never let go out of sight of these darn'd ole winders, for fear I'll be wanted to lug a clicker to somebody. I have to stay till Jim Bates comes; that's four o'clock!"
Murtagh expressed his regret in fitting language, and, after some desultory chaffing, said, looking about him, and making a movement as if to go:
"Well, I'm sorry yer tied up so tight, my man; you ought to be a horse jockey like me, instead of being cooped up here. I s'pose you hain't made any more trips out Beechwood way since I took ye there, eh?"
"Well, that's jest where you're left," grinned the boy;" I took another clicker out there last night."
"You don't tell me? Well, that's what I call hard lines! To have to hoof it back and forth all day like that." He put his hand in friendly sympathy upon the boy's shoulder, and they began to pace along the platform, finally sitting down upon it, with their legs, the long and the short, dangling over its edge. They sat thus for perhaps fifteen minutes, and then Mr. Baird's "new man" declared that he must go at once, and take out "them daisy chestnuts."
His mission was accomplished, and he carried away with him the information which would make his visit to Beechwood more interesting and possibly more important, than he had dared hope to expect.
"That was time well spent," he muttered to himself, as he hastened homeward. How shall I put my new knowledge to best use?" He slackened his pace as he began to ponder, and by the time he had reached the stables he had matured his plans.
It was nearly an hour later when a seedy-looking stranger entered the grounds of Beechwood, and, after some delay, found himself face to face with Madam Sarita, he upon the upper step, she within the small opening she had made at the side door.
He touched his hat respectfully, and then, favouring her with a look which she might interpret as she would, lie said:
"I've got a little—word fer you, an' it's of importance. I had better speak to ye alone."
The woman eyed him doubtfully, and slowly drew away from the door.
"You may come in," she said shortly.
Once within, and admitted to a small rear room which evidently was that daily occupied by the woman before him, a sort of servant's sitting-room, the man put on a bland and ingenuous look, and drew from his pocket a small book and a stubby lead pencil.
"Lady," he began in a wheedling tone, worthy of a tramp high up | | 68 in his profession, "I have to ask ye, first off, to jest sign yer name to this little book."
"What for?" she snapped, drawing back as he presented the book and pencil.
"Fer that little telegram that was brought ye late yesterday afternoon, the last one brought ye by my neffy, Will Green."
"I didn't—" she began.
But the man went on without heeding her words. "Ye see, lady, the comp'ny's very particular about these things. It's ag'inst rules to go away without hayin' the name on the book, and if my neffy hadn't a come to me an' tole me how'twas, he'd a been discharged most like afore this, and that would a been very bad fur the boy and fur me."
"What boy are you talking about? I don't know what you mean!" she snapped, her black eyes flashing ominously.
The hand that still held out the book was lowered; the man came a step nearer and fixed his eyes upon her face, and the bland look be came less bland, quite unpleasant, in fact, as he said:
"See here, mum. If you are a goin' to say that there wa'nt no boy here, and you didn't git no two telegrams, signin' one, and then declarin', when the other come, that you couldn't sign it cause you'd jest hurt yir wrist; if that's what ye was a goin' ter say, don't ye say it—because I came with the boy, right to this very gate; and I know ye got it!"
A swift change came over the woman's face.
"If you were with him, as you say," she said suspiciously, "why did not you come in then, and say all this?"
"Well, I'll tell ye, mum." He put his foot upon the round of a chair near him, and rested an elbow upon the uplifted knee. "Ye see, by the time he had got his story owned up—he was kind a backward about it, 'cause he know'd I'd jaw him—by the time he'd told it, we was a'most home, and his time bein' out fer the day he didn't haf to go to the office no more till this mornin', and he didn't haf to take his book till he went; 'cause each boy has his own book, ye see."
"Humph!" sniffed the woman for answer. "You'd better go away, old man, or I'll call the coachman to put you out. It's my belief that you're crazy."
"Me crazy!" The man spoke like one aggrieved, and, as he went on, he waxed pathetic, almost tearful. "Now, mum, don't ye think I'm meanin' to blame you for nothin'; I don't mind yer flyin' out at me a little; that's nateral enough—fer wimmin folks, lord bless em! But jes' let me tell ye how it is, an' then maybe ye'll see things different. Ye see we're poor folks, and there ain't over much work fer Bill and me, in Pomfret, so we want to go west, out where Bill's big brother is. He's wrote us that he can git me a light job, easy enough; and, if Bill 'ud bring him a recommend from the folks he's workin' fer here, he kin git him inter the office out there most like. And then, right now, when we was wantin' to git the recommend, 'cause I've lost my job here, or rather, the job that wus promist me, this comes up—"
"Whom have you worked for?" she broke in keenly.
"Wal—I've been doin' kind of odd jobs fer quite a time back, but 3 | | 69 week or two ago, Mr. Baird, he's the banker, ye know, keeps lots of horses, and—"
"Yes, yes I know enough about him."
"Ye dew? Wal, so dew I, now, fer he promist to give me a berth in his stables in place of the feller he turned off, and then he turned plum round and took another feller—a sprig a little younger than me, and so I'm out. These rich folks don't care how we labourin' men git on, durn 'em! And I don't—?"
Look here," broke in the woman, "I want you to stop this talk and go!"
"Sartin, sartin! I was jest goin' to say that when Bill an' me goes to the office to tell 'em we're goin' west, they'll ask fur his book. An' then we'll haf to tell 'em that the lady wouldn't sign it. And then—poor Bill won't git no recommend." He opened the book, and, suddenly stepping forward, presented it again with the stub of pencil. "Please jest put yer name right thar, mum," he said in a wheedling tone.
She struck the book so suddenly, and sharply, that it flew from his hand.
"I won't hear another word from you!" she flashed;" go this moment!"
He picked up the misused book and put it in his pocket with slow movement, and a melancholy shake of the head, and without an answering word turned and walked to the door as if about to go. With his hand upon the latch he paused,
"I swanny! what a forgetful old fool I'm gittin' ter be!"he exclaimed, turning back. "If I didn't enamost fergit that messige."
The woman started.
"What message?" she asked quickly.
"Why, you see," he began in his former slow drawl, "I was around ter Mr. Baird's, a tryin' ter see, if he wouldn't let me have half a month's pay—or anyway a week's, and—"
"Stop," stamping her foot fiercely. "The message!" and she put out her hand.
"Tain't writ," he said; and then with sudden dryness," I s'pose they knowed you couldn't sign fer it. Mr. Baird was on the pint of sendin' that new man o'his'n, but I jest licked in and said I'd do his arrend, fer I was comin' up here anyway—I'd a come anyhow jest ter spite that new man, ye see. Wal, I see yer kind o'impatient; maybe I be a leetle long-winded; some like a old woman, ain't I? Wal—Mr. Baird, he says, 'Tell Miss Sarrity that her master and mistress are here, an' they will be out to Beechwood to-morrer.' He says, 'Tell her they sent her a telegram, and there wa'nt no one to meet 'em—an' they want to know why it didn't come.'"
Sarita clinched her hands in a gesture very emphatic and very French, and turned her back upon the tantalising old man for a moment; then she turned again, and her tone was changed when she asked, "Are you going back to Mr. Baird's?"
"No, I ain't." Somehow their respective tones had become reversed. "I'm going to that telegraph office. I'm mighty sorry ye won't own to gitten that message, mum. I've got ter stand by my | | 70 neffy, and then I s'pose they'll go ter quiryin' round, ter see who's told the truth, an' who hain't. Durn the luck! I wisht I'd a got that money out of old Baird; I'd take Bill and start west tomorrow; I ain't never had no luck in Pomfret nohow. I'm right sorry ye won't sign, mum; seems if 'twas easy nuff fer ye just time."
A flash of triumph came into the woman's eyes, as if she saw suddenly a way out of a difficulty.
"Look here," she said, "did that boy tell you that I signed that book?"
"That he saw me sign it?"
The man seemed struck with a disconcerting idea; he hesitated.
"Wal," he drawled at last, "now't I recollect, he didn't jest say't he seen ye, but he sed this 'ere. I went ter the door,' ses he, 'an' I gin her the messige an' this book.'"
"Ah!" with a long breath of triumph. "You see he gave me the book and I took it in. He was out on the door-stone. He never saw the book signed, and I didn't sign it." She came a step closer, and actually smiled in his face.
Madam Sarita was a clever woman and not easily deceived, but she could have no reason for doubting the story of the man before her. She had lived long in Pomfret, but she had come little in contact with the townspeople, save as they came in her way at Beechwood.
Of aristocratic Pomfret she knew much, for the best of its aristocracy were often in Lysander Deering's stately drawing-rooms; and she knew, more or less, the servants of these. But she was exclusive, and, in spite of her long sojourn, a foreigner still. In all the years she had passed under the Deering roof she had never formed an intimacy outside that roof. How could she imagine, then, that an imposture could be perpetrated upon her in this bold fashion. She did not doubt the old man, nor his story, and her one thought, as she stood smiling there, was, "Could she rely upon him, if she obtained his promise?"
She had not yet given up the battle; and she meant to use this "imbecile," as she mentally named him. There was no other way.
And so, after much seeming reluctance, and an extorted promise, madam yielded, and made her confession, with tears in her eyes—real tears.
And this it was! Madam had not been alone when the first message came. One of the maids, who lived not far away, happened to have run in, for she was now at her home taking her vacation; and it was she, this maid, who had signed the book then. But, ma foi, when the next one came, madam was alone, and then it was that she had told that little fib, for although she could write very well, oh, quite nicely indeed, in her own native French, in English she could not write even her own name. That English was so hard! And now he had forced her to own this, she would beg him never to tell the awkward little secret. For people would think her so pitifully ignorant, which really, in her own tongue, she was not."
And then came the finale. If he would promise to take his nephew and go away, at once, before there could be any chance for questions, she would willingly pay his fare; his and the boy's; she did not care | | 71 for the money, so that these people of Pomfret, who knew French no better than she knew English, should not be able to laugh at her.
And this point having been reached, matters were easily settled.
"Well," mused Murtagh, as, moving slowly as befitted his assumed age, he walked away from Beechwood, "I have satisfied myself. I know she received and destroyed the telegram; and, knowing that Mr. Deering and his family would arrive today, did not lift a finger in preparation for their reception, nor send the carriage to meet them. And I know that she has declared, and will declare, that she never received the message. But that's all I know. Why was this done? And will it be for good or ill?"
He quickened his pace as he found himself cut off from sight of Beechwood by the screening shade of the park. But not too much, for he was still upon Beechwood ground, and he was never recklessly daring, except under necessity; and he continued to muse.
She is too clever a woman not to take measures to find out if the boy has left the telegraph office; but she will not do it openly, and will not be likely to speak of me. The boy shall be got safely out of her way. If she should have reason for thinking we were still in Pomfret, she would be upon her guard, and her little game, whatever it may be, will be so much the harder for me to unearth. I must get Mr. Baird to give Will Green a job on that farm of his. The boy's so crazy over a horse that he will be very willing to go; especially as he finds the telegraph business so hard on his legs."
Murtagh had learned from the boy that he was, in truth, an orphan, and lived with an uncle; and he had used these materials, as we have seen. He was right, too, in surmising that Master Green would be glad of a change of occupation, which should bring him into that congenial haven for most boys, a well-appointed stable.
Mr. Baird was also amenable to reason. He did not precisely require a boy at his country place, but, nevertheless, Will Green found himself, two days later, enjoying a sinecure at Rose Farm as assistant stable-boy. As for the spurious uncle, who had troubled Madam Sarita's peace, he was not seen in Pomfret after that day.
A few days later she proved Murtagh a shrewd guesser, if not a prophet; for she appeared at the telegraph office with some clever pretext, and assured herself, by coolly asking after the "nice boy" who had brought messages to Beechwood, that Will Green, and therefore, of course, his "idiot old uncle," had left Pomfret. After which she breathed freely, and dismissed from her mind what had threatened to be an unpleasant menace.
In the morning of the day following that of their arrival, Mrs. Deering drove to Beechwood in Mr. Baird's carriage, the useful new man being upon the driver's seat.
Sitting thus, Murtagh, a very different personage from the uncle of Billy Green, and feeling secure from recognition, saw Sarita come forth in haste to greet her returning lady; and heard, with interest, her voluble welcome, and her expressions of regret for the untoward accident of the lost telegram.
"I am so more than sorry, Mrs. Deering," she declared. "It is wrong to have those careless little boys to run the errands, such | | 72 errands! He has already been sent away, I am told, for his careless ways. And do you know," opening wide her dark eyes, "the bad boy declared to them that he had given to me the telegraph message. Such a falsehood!"
"Let it pass, Sarita," said her mistress calmly. "And let us go in. I hope you have sent for the servants; I telegraphed for Mrs. Merton from New York, I think she will arrive tomorrow."
It was settled that Mr. Deering should continue the guest of Mr. Baird until the house at Beechwood was open, and the servants in their places; and he was very willing to remain. After a day's rest he came out stronger, and with more energy than they had dared hope to see him display ever again.
The charge, against one of his own blood, of a foul murder, had aroused in him a hot indignation, and awakened a strong purpose to do battle for his brother's son; and the shock, the effect of which they had feared as a deadly blow, had only startled him, as the tocsin call arouses the brave to the defence of his own.
He heard the story of Joe Matchin's murder with sincerest sorrow for the victim; and he would have nothing less than the full and complete account of Bruce Deering's part, active and passive, in the wretched drama. He heard it from Baird, from the clergymen, and from John Redding, then—
"I have had the story from three points of view," he said. "And I think I have grasped it in all its bearings.Now—I must see Bruce."
The young man, who, knowing his uncle had arrived, had yet held himself aloof, came at once when summoned, his head proudly erect. But when their eyes met, the mask of pride fell, the haughty look forsook the young man's face, it flushed and paled, and the fine mouth was tremulous as he felt the grasp of his uncle's hand.
"Bruce, my boy," the elder said, still holding his hand, "I am glad to see you come to me with your head erect; a false charge can't take away a man's honour!"
"Uncle," responded Bruce Deering, "it's like death to me, to feel that through me dishonour has come upon your name."
"If dishonour had come to me, to my name and yours, boy, it would be death to me, I verily believe. Dishonour, Bruce, comes through our deeds, not through our misfortunes. You have encountered misfortune, cruel misfortune; but your friends know you. You do not stand alone, and this base charge shall be thrown in the teeth of your accusers. Don't doubt that you shall be vindicated. Sit down, Bruce; we may as well talk this over at once."
An hour later, when Bruce arose to go, his uncle caught his hand.
"Bruce, I wish you had stayed at Beechwood," he said, "though I daresay you found it dreary enough."
"No, I cared little for that; though that I missed you all, goes without saying. But I knew you had confidence in Sarita, and Theron, and—I'll tell you just how I happened to come down to the office, uncle. It's really very simple, and I'm sure you would have done the same in my place," He uttered a short laugh. "It's all because of Mrs. Merton's deafness. You see, I was sitting in the | | 73 morning-room some ten days after you left, and it was so late, and I had lingered so long, that I daresay they thought I had gone. But while I still sat at table, I heard Santa's voice in the next room, Mrs. Merton's sitting-room; she was talking of Mrs. Merton's visit—the old lady was going next day—and telling her how much the two maids and Saunders longed for a holiday; and while she expressed her own perfect willingness to remain, she did sympathise with the others who had homes and friends they would be glad to see."
"Yes, yes! And then you must announce forthwith that it would be more convenient for you to live down town; and you bade them all go and enjoy themselves," smiled his uncle. "Didn't you now?"
"Something like it, Uncle Lys. You gave me full plenipotentiary powers, you know; and then, it did seem like unnecessary pomp for one lone bachelor to live there with butler, cook, and two housemaids, to say nothing of—"
"Yes, yes! I know. I don't blame you, only—I wish you hadn't!"
"Surely you don't blame poor Sarita for saying what she never meant me to hear?"
"Bless you, no! Sarita is as fond of you as she is of Brook; she'd only be too glad to immolate herself for you lads; she always has been your vassal. This is what I wanted to get at; I want you now to come back home."
"Uncle Lys—please don't ask that of me! I couldn't now. Wait until this stigma is taken from me,—if it ever is. I can bear up alone; but to live, day after day, powerless to fight for or vindicate my honour, under the pitying eyes of those two women, I cannot."
The elder man urged his point with loving insistence, but he gave it up at last.
"I'm disappointed, Bruce," he said. "But I won't pretend that I don't understand your feelings; I do, and I honour them! If it will not add to your comfort to be with us at Beechwood, I will say no more. You will come to us sometimes?"
"If you wish it, all of you."
"We do wish it!—all of us," said the other, and again their hands met in a strong clasp.
As the days went on Mr. Baird found himself becoming more and more a walking encyclopaedia for his "new man." And, though some of the inquiries addressed to him seemed, to him, to be "beyond the question," he answered all cheerfully, and no longer questioned his interrogator, who, as he saw full confidence established between them, explained himself less and less.
A few days after the Deerings had left the Bairds' mansion, and Beechwood was once more open to its friends, Murtagh sought the banker in his sanctum.
"Mr. Baird," he began, for he no longer wasted time upon preliminaries, "I learn, about town, that Bruce Deering has always lived at Beechwood until lately."
"That is true."
"Do you know why he does not go back?"
Mr. Baird looked at him fixedly for a moment.
"Would you go back to such a house, in his place?" he asked.| | 74
"I hope not," was the prompt answer; "nevertheless, I am asking for information."
"And you shall have it." And as Mr. Deering had told the story of his interview with Bruce, and its result, to him, he now retold it to the detective.
"Julius Cæsar!" Murtagh broke out at the end, "that woman crops up altogether too often!"
"Madam Sarita, of course; who else? Don't you see it? She lets Mr. Bruce hear her tell how much the servants need a holiday. Now, suppose that, for some reason which we do not yet understand, this woman wants the house to herself, don't you see how well she has managed it. The housekeeper was going away, so, knowing well what to expect from young Deering once he knows, or thinks he knows, the situation, she waits her opportunity, and when he is within hearing, confides her sympathy for the overworked domestics to Mrs. Merton, who is deaf, when she knows she will be overheard."
The banker's face wore a look of amazement.
"Murtagh, all this is an enigma to me. I shall not try to follow you."
"Thank you. I hope you won'tænot yet. But I mean to follow her. And to that end, Mr. Baird, I wish you would give me every possible opportunity to visit Beechwood. I want to know the servants, some of themæbetter."
"In the house of my friend'?" quoted Mr. Baird, reproachfully.
"For your friend's friend's sake," replied the detective.
"What must be shall be," smiled the other. "You are relentless, I see, Murtagh. I am in your hands."
"And they will not let you fall or fail, if work and will can conquer."
As if by one accord, the two men grasped each other's hands.
As he was about to go, the detective stopped, when almost at the door, and turned back.
"There is a very little matteræ(that is, little in itself; I can't say how important it might become if I could only understand it) æthat I don't see a way to getting hold of."
"Ah! and what can it be?"
"Simply this: from the little I heard at the station when your friends cameæ"
"And Miss La Mar did not!"
"And Miss La Mar did not. I understood that Miss Rodney had been asked to stop with Miss Wardell."
"And that she had declined the invitation. Wait," as Mr. Baird seemed about to speak; "I heard Mr. and Mrs. Deering speak of this, and the lady expressed some wonder that the two telegrams, which, she said, had been sent at the same time, should have had such curious results. I remember her words. 'We,' she said, 'wired Sarita that we were coming with Valentine, and ordered our carriage at the station, while Val wired, declining the invitation from Miss Wardell. We found no carriage in waiting; natural result of a telegram lost; | | 75 while Val, her telegram being received, still finds Miss Wardell at the station.'"
"Well," said Mr. Baird, as the detective paused, "what is the little question?"
"I'd like to know how Miss Wardell explained her presence at the station, having received her negative message."
"Really," said the banker, smiling again, "that is a delicate point to investigate. Obviously, the persons who can best give the information are, first, Miss Wardell,"—Murtagh shrugged his shoulders—"and, last, Miss Rodney."
"But—who could ask Miss Rodney such a question? And how could such a question be explained? Positively, Murtagh, I know of only one person who could do a thing like that, and do it successfully."
"Who is that—person?"
"That person is Brook Deering, and he is in Europe."
"And why is he especially qualified?"
"Well, if you could see the lad, you would not need to ask the question. Brook Deering is one of those happily-constituted fellows who can take all sorts of liberties and still be popular. There's a sort of funny bon homme about the fellow that disarms criticisms. Jove! I wish Brook Deering was at home, if only to cheer up Bruce and stand his friend."
Murtagh was silent a moment, then—
"Got his picture?" he asked.
"Yes, I've got his picture; wait a moment, I'll show it you."
He left the room, returning in a moment with a half-length photograph of the size and shape known as panels.
"There he is," he said, "and a good-looking fellow, too."
It was the picture of a young man, slender and graceful, with his handsome head thrown back and slightly turned aside. The features were almost too perfect, the eyes fine, the full-curved lips smiling beneath the short moustache; the hair, falling in short waves over his forehead, showed light even in the picture.
"Blonde?" That was all Murtagh said as he gave back the picture.
"Blonde; yes—a handsome fellow. You may search the country, and you won't find two such handsome fellows as these cousins, Brook and Bruce Deering."
"To judge from that picture you must be right," said Murtagh; and, Mr. Baird having laid the picture down, he took it up again and scrutinised it more intently than at first. "I rather admire dark men myself. Now, your Bruce Deering is, to look at, a man without a flaw—physical perfection; and—yes—one might say the same of this chap, only, somehow, he has not such a look of strength, of power—I would not call this one an athlete." He put the picture down, and suddenly changed the subject." If I should come up missing at any time, Mr. Baird, and such a thing might happen—if I can catch on to a clue to follow, or, that I can follow—if this happens, and I should be in haste, Dr unable to communicate with you for any reason, when you miss me, | | 76 go to my room and look under the carpet, which you will find loose just under the table that stands between the two windows; you'll probably find news of me there—if not, look in the mail. Good-night."
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