- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XIV. BRENDA MEETS A FOE.
|<< chapter 13||< chapter 1||chapter 15 >||chapter 33 >>|
BRENDA MEETS A FOE.
ALL that Tom Wells had said of Jonas Wiggins was true and much more. The man had been an inhabitant of Pomfret for nearly three years, idle for the most part, intoxicated often, and, at such times, surly, rather than social, and quite apt to stagger homeward at a certain stage of his intoxication,—that stage at which men are apt to become loquacious, and more confiding than, in their moments of "sober second thought," they like to think of.
Aside from the occasional doing of "odd jobs" about town, Wiggins seemed to have no occupation, or source of livelihood, save and except that of hunting. And there had even been times when there had arisen something akin to rivalry between himself and Tom Wells, who was, in truth, a mighty hunter, and who owned a modest farm, which, being "let for cash," furnished its owner ample, if simple, support, while he gave all his active moments to gun and rod, and other outdoor occupations, which took him far afield, and made him wondrous well acquainted with Pomfret's surroundings.
Wiggins, on the other hand, made his appearance as a Nimrod, as well as in the character of labouring man, interchangeably, and semi-occasionally; being, in the interim, rather quiet than otherwise, seldom boisterous, even when mingling with those who were notably 30; and, at no time, even at his worst, an actual disturber of the peace.
Very few questioned what he did with his idle moments, and fewer still could have given satisfactory information. Indeed, among his fellows—those who, like himself, drank a little, more, or much, as the case might be, and idled more or less—there had sprung up, because of their similar tastes and pursuits, a sort of brotherhood. And Wiggins, because of a crude knowledge of the world, which he seemed to possess, and a certain sly shrewdness, and rough sharpness of tongue, which, among them, passed for wit, had become something of a leader among these roughs and ne'er-do-wells of Pomfret. And he was set down by them as "no slouch of a talker;" "a bad un ter beat with a gun;" and "sorter shiftless round home." This last proposition founded upon the oft-repeated statements of certain neighbours that Mrs. Jonas was often seen "a-choppin' her wood," and Jonas himself, "never."
The Wiggins family, consisting of but the two members, lived in a small cottage, scarcely more than a hut, in the very outskirts of the town, and on this particular day, at the very moment when the four | | 88 men in Banker Baird's library were discussing the dubious, not to say suspicious, doings of the head thereof,—head but by courtesy in this case,—the pair were at home, and unusually occupied.
As a rule, when Jane began to berate Jonas, because of some wrong, real or fancied, that lord of creation demonstrated his ability to rule his own household, by rising, when he could do so; and, with a step which became more haughty as it grew less steady, strode from the room, which, in reality, constituted the house; kicking at anything which chanced in his victorious path.
To-day, however, Wiggins sat astride his most reliable chair, stationed squarely in the middle of the room; and the valiant Jane knew, by a certain dogged upward and outward reach of his ugly chin, that, this time, there was a battle to fight, to win, or to lose.
"I tell ye," she was declaiming with an angry sparkle in her eye, "you're jest makin' a fool of yerself'n' I know it. First place, ye ain't sober 'n' you know it!"
"Uh! Ain't I?" he sneered. "Now, how—"
"'Cause ye ain't. Nor ye hain't hardly drawed a real truly sober breath since, lemme see, not since that night—"
The man sprang up, and caught her by the shoulder.
"Drop that!" he cried with an oath. "Drop it, or—" he let a clenched fist, close under her nose, complete the sentence.
"Pooh!" She tossed her head and flung herself away from him. "Sometimes ye ken be the meachinest, Jone Wiggins! Jest as if 'twas goin' to hurt ye to speak about that night, jest 'tween you and me! But that ain't the question. I tell you 'tain't the right time ter go to young Deering; an' it's best to go to the woman, anyhow. She's the one to shell out liberally; and I know jest how to git at the hull matter. Jest let me alone, ter manage a woman like that!"
Wiggins went unsteadily back to his seat.
"There ain't no use of argyment," he snarled; "thing's mine—ain't it?—didn't I find it, say?"
"Oh, yes!" she jeered. "You found it, an' you daresent keep it about ye half-an-hour, and so came runnin' home to me—good job, too, drunk as you was 'fore mornin'!"
"All the same," he persisted, doggedly, "it's mine. I found it." The leer with which he finished this declaration seemed to rouse the woman to fury.
"Maybe ye found it, an' maybe ye come by it some other way," she insinuated, coming close before him with hands upon hips, "but I've got it, and I'm goin' to keep it, to make a sensible use of."
The man half raised himself from the chair, and lounged heavily back again, letting his chin fall upon his crossed arms, which rested upon the chair-back.
This worthy couple had been engaged in an altercation which began soon after the man's return from his favourite "saloon," at an unusually early hour. And, if the woman had not been working her way by degrees into a frenzy of rage, she would have been quicker to note this sudden and unusual relapse at this particular stage into quiescence, which soon became, or seemed to become, an absolute stupor.
Being blind to all save her own wrath, she made one or two ineffect- | | 89 ual efforts to goad him to the "retort uncourteous," and, failing utterly, turned her aroused energies in another direction.
Breakfast had been scant, and Jonas had set out for town promising to bring back the wherewithal for a more satisfactory dinner, but he had returned early, and empty-handed; and now, when she tried to extract from him an answer to her demand for the promised dinner, his only reply was a grunt, and shaking off her none too gentle hand, he stumbled across the room, and literally dropped himself upon a shabby bed in a dark corner, where he was soon breathing heavily.
It was not until this state of affairs had been reached that the woman's face relaxed some of its fierceness; then, as she stole softly to the bedside, and bent over the sleeper, there was a grim smile upon her face, which was broad and short, with wide mouth, quite devoid of any expression of humour. In more youthful days she must have possessed a coarse sort of beauty, made up of bright fresh colour, fine white teeth, still handsome, and abundant hair, coarse, but glossy, and genuinely black, as were the eyes, which, in these later days, were expressive, but not tender.
She bent above the recumbent man, and stood thus motionless for a moment, then she placed a hand upon his shoulder with a light pressure.
"Jone!" she sibilated, and, after a moment, and somewhat louder, "Jonas!" then, still louder, "Jonas Wiggins!"
Jonas stirred slightly, muttered something unintelligible, and finally threw out one arm and turned half over, his face toward the wall.
"Blind drunk!" she muttered contemptuously, and then, for a few moments, there was silence in the room, while the woman watched as at first. At last, as though quite satisfied, she began to move about noiselessly, as if preparing to go out, and finally she came back, and, after another hasty examination of the recumbent figure, began carefully but quickly to rifle the pocket which had been considerately brought uppermost when the slumberer had turned his face to the wall. The work was accomplished soon and safely, and Mrs. Jonas Wiggins was presently upon the highway, taking long strides townward, covertly counting the scant stock of coins, which she still carried in one hand, and muttering as she went:
"Brute of a man! Leave nothing to eat, and bring nothing but his drunken self. I'll have a square meal now, and a good one. And I'll have my share of it ate up all comfortable long afore he wakes up, or I miss my guess."
Alas for Jane!
By the time she had reached the place in the "snake fence," where the gate was not, Jonas had opened his eyes and lifted his head from the scanty pillow. At the moment when she was counting her, or his money, he was deep in the mystery of feminine hiding-places, and muttering, as he moved about, so quickly, and so dexterously, as to make the sham of his seemingly drunken sleep evident, had there been one present to see.
"Drat the woman!" he muttered as he plunged his hand into a deep pocket, "she's hid it agin! So! the darlin's been suspectin' of me is it!" But as his search grew longer he grew less facetious, and | | 90 went on overhauling nooks and corners in angry haste; finally stopping to survey the wreck, for he had made Jane's orderly room look the habitation of a destructive lunatic.
"I believe the hussy has beaten me!" he cried with an oath and a stamp of his foot; and then his eyes lighting upon the clock shelf, he sprang toward it.
It was a small shelf, and high upon the wall; and the clock was Jane's exclusive property. Being taller than her spouse, she could reach it easily, and wound it with great regularity. On the other hand, Jonas could scarce touch its face when standing upon his tiptoes.
Now he seized an overturned chair and, in a moment, had jerked open the clock door. Several small treasures lay inside the case, below the swinging pendulum, but the first thing to attract him was a tiny box, a druggist's pill box; nothing more. With a trembling hand he pulled off the cover, which fitted too tightly for his impatient fingers, but a glance at the bright pink cotton within, and a touch assuring him that there was something, solid, if small, concealed beneath the soft fuzz, and he was down from the chair. Two minutes later he was out of the house and away, taking a roundabout route to town, by which means he was safe not to meet the defrauded Jane; but stopping at a sheltered and otherwise convenient point for taking a long and refreshing drink from the bottle which, all the time, had been concealed in the pocket that, by turning over so innocently, he had effectually protected from Jane's prying fingers.
"Now," he accosted himself, as he put away the almost empty flask, "Mr. Wiggins, your time's come! Jane's keen! nobody disputes that; but I've heard her air her ideas so many times, that they're jest as good now as mine; I know 'em, pat! Jane'll rage—but, if I make my stake now, it needn't worry one. No—but it'll worry Bruce Deering, or some of his friends, you bet!" and he patted the pocket, an inner pocket, and well concealed, where lay the little cotton-filled pill box; and then, probably to subdue his fast rising elation, he emptied his flask, and in this way came into town, and seemed to gravitate to the door of his favourite grog shop.
He was not yet intoxicated, but he felt very comfortable, and every inch a man. He was not inclined toward conversation, and he did not accept, after having his flask refilled, of all of the half-dozen "treats" offered him by a group of his chosen friends.
"Sorry, boys, but can't stop now," he explained; "feller waitin' fer me; goin' fer a little gunnin'; jes' come in ter fill up, see?" tapping the flask affectionately.
He left the place with swagger and jest, and took himself into the better part of town by a roundabout way, sauntering past the bank, and loitering awhile in the shade of the great trees which skirted on two sides the walls of St. Mark's.
From here he took his way slowly, and his face lost some of its easy assurance. As the sun rose higher, the air grew warmer and was full of early summer sounds; and, as he reached the inviting shade of the trees of Beechwood Park, his feet began to drag, and he threw himself down by the wayside. And now he was no longer the Jonas Wiggins of the last two hours. He looked ill at ease and uncertain.| | 91
"I'm blest if I don't feel queer!" the man muttered half aloud. "Can't see a way clear to begin after all!" He stood up and looked about him with ill-feigned carelessness.
He had stopped at the point in the road where the plain board fence, inclosing some vacant lots, joined the more ornate palings of the Beechwood domain, and these palings standing out some three feet beyond the lower boundary, formed a cosy nook, where some over-hanging boughs, from both park and meadow, made a perfect screen for the loiterer, shielding him from view until the traveller upon the highway came directly opposite.
In this comfortable and inviting corner our slow-going pilgrim established himself to ponder the situation, and, having thus pondered for some moments with no satisfactory stirring of the grey matter beneath his limp hat and tousled hair, he roused himself so far as to draw forth the newly-filled flask, and seeming to find in it some cheer, if no enlightenment, he let it rest beside him in the long grass, close to his guarding hand.
"It's a fact!" he again soliloquised, "I'm stumped! I wish't now I'd gone into society a little more! If she wa'n't a woman, an'a real 'ristocrat! Old John Tucker! but I've got ter git some sort of style onto myself from somewhere." And his hand coming into contact with the flask, he grinned. "Come on, old boy, you've loosened my tongue before, jest enough an' not too much. That's the ticket—there—that goes! I begin to feel first-rate." He looked up at the sun. "Gittin' on, time is." And he threw himself at full length upon the soft sward.
This was true enough; at this precise time Lysander Deering and "Parson" Arden were making a prolonged call upon Bruce Deering, a little to the surprise of that graved-faced but composed young man; and, Tom Wells, upon a hot scent, was just making an exit from Wiggins' favourite "saloon," with a disabled gun over his shoulder.
Before Wells had again struck his trail, Wiggins, his, fair game almost in sight, was fast asleep, and snoring in the shady corner at the foot of Beechwood.
Mrs. Deering had been at Beechwood since early morning, and there were signs of her presence everywhere in the big, handsome house, that was home indeed to its proud master—master of all, save the two lovely women who made it the place of comfort and beauty he had ever found it, since first sweet Brenda Deering crossed its threshold, mistress, indeed, of his heart, his home, and his happiness.
Without, where Robbins, the old gardener, reigned, all was in its spring-time glory, and this, perhaps, is the reason why Brenda comes out upon the balcony overlooking her blooming rose garden, and stands gazing there with a weary look in her eyes, and a sorrowful droop of her tender, womanly mouth. The balcony, opening as it does from her own favourite sitting-room, looks down upon the garden, and is visible from the entrance, and even the highway beyond.
A full hour had passed since Jonas Wiggins fell asleep by the road-side, and as the lady of the manor turned to go in, after a long survey of her fair garden, she, encountered Sarita in the doorway.| | 92
She, too, wore a look of fatigue, a sort of strained and anxious look which at once caught the attention of her kind chatelaine.
"Sarita," she said quickly, "you have done enough to-day. Go and rest; all is going well, and Mrs. Merton must come to-morrow, I am sure."
"It is not that, madam! Ah, always you are so kind! There is a man below—waiting—at the steps. He asks to see you. Oh! such a man!"
"I told him to go away, madam; he is not a tramp, nor a beggar, I think, and then he said I must tell you. It was from Mr. Bruce—a letter—"
"Give it to me!" Mrs. Deering drew herself erect, her face changed, and suddenly seemed aroused and strong." Where is it?" she demanded.
"Oh, Peste! He would not give it to me! He must see none but you. Madam!" she came suddenly closer, "send that man away He is not fit I He is not safe! He is a bad man, and—I think—drunk!"
"I shall see the man at once!" Her sweet voice was haughty now; but the next moment she turned back and smiled. "I shall not run unnecessary risks, Sarita. Tell Robbins I want him to sit, until this person goes, in the dining-room, and—where is Samson?"
"In his house, I think, madam."
"Good! I shall go down after you, by the dining-room stair. Tell Robbins to bring the dog to me in the dining-room, and do you stay there, after you have taken the man to the little reception room. See that the outer room is unoccupied, and that no one comes nearer than the dining-room, unless I ring."
Whatever may have been her thoughts, fears, or anticipations, they were not to be read upon the calm countenance of Brenda Deering as she swept into the little reception room, and confronted her unusual visitor.
Even a more astute person than Jonas Wiggins, with all his wits at his command, could have seen, in that fair face, no shade of surprise, annoyance, apprehension, or any other emotion or feeling, save, perhaps, a mere shadow of surprise, as, advancing straight toward the uncouth figure standing uncertainly in the middle of the room, she said,
"You wished to see me, I am told?" As she paused directly before him, the right hand, holding tightly between its slender fingers a dainty handkerchief, dropped carelessly downward, and she swerved a little aside, thereby exposing to view the door by which she had entered, open as she had left it, and, standing upon its threshold, a great dog of the St. Bernard species, huge of his kind, and as grave and stately as his lady mistress.
Wiggins had awakened from his nap partially sober, and had entered the room with some well-defined ideas of his part in the coming interview, and how he should play it; but the grace and composure of the lady, or the dignity and strength of the big St. Bernard, or both together, had evidently disconcerted him. He stood silent before her, | | 93 and looked uneasily, not to say sheepishly, from one to the other, and for a long moment they confronted each other thus. Then the lady spoke again.
"I am Mrs. Deering," she said. "Will you tell me your errand? There was a touch of haughtiness in the tone. She had not meant it, but her feeling of repulsion was instinctive. The man perceived it, and was himself again.
"I sha'n't detain you long, ma'am; at least I don't want to. It'll be fer you to say." He paused and glanced toward the door.
"Well?" she was standing straight and still before him, her fierce eyes fixed upon his face. He felt again that sensation of uneasiness, and turned his own gaze away, moving restlessly as he resumed:
"What I've got ter say concerns yerself, 'tennyrate yer family, an' it's private, or it'd better be—" turning to look warily about him. "Ma'am, d'ye object to my jest shettin' that door?" He pointed toward the door by which she had entered, and where the dog still stood.
He had not expected her quick compliance; but this had been a part of his programme, intended to make its impression, and to convince her of the importance of his errand. To his surprise, she turned calmly.
"As you like," she said, and lifted her hand. "Samson!"
The great dog raised his head and made a dignified entrance, pausing just within the door.
"Shut the door, Samson."
The dog turned, lifted one great paw and pushed the wide door to its place.
"Sit down, Samson."
The dog seated himself upon his haunches, and his eyes went back to the face of his mistress. After his first glance at Wiggins, the intelligent animal had kept a steady eye upon her, and now, as she crossed the room, his eyes followed her every movement, while she pushed a chair slightly forward, seated herself with deliberate grace and once more turned her face toward her visitor.
"Now," she said, "you can tell me what your business is; you are quite safe from intrusion."
"An'—listeners?" he persisted.
"And from listeners. Now I must beg you to proceed; my time is of value. What is your errand?"
The man came a step nearer.
"I take it," he began, "that ye're interested more or less in Bruce Deering, eh?"
There was a sudden start, and a quick recovery, a flash of the eye and a haughty uplifting of the head.
"Young Mr. Deering is my husband's nephew," she answered coldly. "Do I understand that he has sent you to me?"
"Him! Bruce Deering? Oh! no--no, ma'am. Not at all. I've come on my own account—and your'n."
"Then make your errand known at once. I shall give you but a few moments." The voice was icy now. Wiggins felt its frigidity, and it stirred him to wrath, that, and the lately imbibed contents of the | | 94 pocket flask. Again he forgot his prearranged programme, and the diplomatic approach he had meant to make.
"Oh!" he cried, forgetting caution, "you won't be so haughty in a minute, maybe! Maybe I am the dirt under your feet, ma'am, but you'll be glad enough to listen to me soon!" And he began to fumble hastily in the pockets of his dingy waistcoat.
Instantly and silently Brenda Deering was upon her feet. There was a gesture, an almost imperceptible lifting of the hand, and the big dog had bounded to her side; then the hand fell, and as the animal crouched at her feet, she said, with a note of sternness in her voice, "Waste no more words, sir. Your errand, whatever it is; and at once."
The man came a step nearer; there was an ugly sparkle in his eye, and he seemed to ignore for the moment the presence of the dog. He was holding something tightly clutched in his hand, and the mod. humility of his speech was belied by the leer upon his face.
"I beg ye many a pardon, ma'am; I ain't troublin' ye all on my own account. No, indeed; it's because I thought you a friend to Mr. Bruce Deerin' that I've come here—" he paused and seemed to hesitate.
"Go on!" she said, sharply. "Did Mr. Deering send you to me?" She was pale now but quite firm and self-controlled.
Wiggins made a moment's pretence at hesitation, then—
"I wish't I knew jest how much I ort to say to ye! I—I'm a friend to Mr. Bruce, an'—the fact is" the fellow looked about him uneasily, his bravo was forsaking him. This erect, clear-eyed woman disconcerted him in spite of his native impudence. "Well!" he exclaimed, after a moment, during which the eyes of the fair woman never left his face, and those of the dog seemed to increase in size and to glow ominously, "Well, ma'am, if you'll jest let me explain in my own way, it'll be the easiest way, an' ye'll understand how I happen to—to a come to ye like this."
She was silent a moment, then turned and resumed her seat. "Go on," she said, "and speak to the point."
"I will. I surely will! Right ter the pint, ma'am. Ye see, on the night of Joe Matchin's murder, ma'am, I was goin' home quite late; goin' by ther way of Main Street, and I sat me down on the rail of the little bridge acrost the creek clost to the end nearest to the bank. It was purty dark, and I don't think he noticed me when he come hurryin' by—" He paused, evidently expecting a question, but she only said—
"I don't know to this day what made me do it, but after settin' there fer some minutes longer, I got up and went back the way I had come. It had come into my mind, a settin' there, that the steps of the feller that passed me so fast in the dark had stopped short. It was a still night, and they sounded real plain at first."
"Yes, yes!" she said, as he paused again.
"Well, ma'am, I went back sort of slow, and I hadn't got half way to the bank when I heard steps runnin' again, and I stopped to hark a minute. Afore I could start myself again, the bell began to ring." Once more he stopped and looked at her, sharply, cunningly.| | 95
She was very pale now, and her lips were firmly set; both were silent a moment, then she spoke, still coldly calm:
"I think you had better finish."
"I will! I'll come to the pint. Two men come hurryin' up behind me and I follered 'em; they run straight fer the church, but the bell had stopped, 'most as quick as it begun, and someone was comin' out of the church and down the steps. I fell back then, and I saw the others meet: the man—him that had rung the bell, I mean, ye know—and the two that had run past me in the dark. They spoke low an' excited like, and all three of 'em went right into the bank. I knew somethin' was up then, an' I stayed outside an' kept quiet till some others came—in jest a minit it 'peared to me. Then I went closter, until I got to the steps; I didn't go inside just at first, but walked the length of the steps; 'tain't allers wise to be the very first in sech a place; but when some others started to go in, I started too."
Again a pause; and again the command came promptly:
"I was right by the north-east corner of the steps when I lifted my foot to go up, and I knew, as I set it down, that I was a steppin' on somethin'."
"Oh!" the exclamation was involuntary, and she closed her lips firmly after it.
"Nobody noticed me, an' I stooped over an' felt for the thing my foot had touched, an' shut it tight in my fist." He came suddenly near enough, upon the side farthest from the dog, to allow her to see the object he had been holding in his closed palm.
"This is it," he said.
It was a little thing and very simple; but one glance was enough to transfix Brenda Deering, and to leave her sitting before her tormentor as pallid and terror-stricken as if he had held out for her view something hideous, ghostly, horrible beyond words to depict.
It was only a sleeve button, such as might have been worn by gentleman or lady, cut, it would seem, from a block of palest amethyst, into an exact square; and upon the upturned face of this square, etched in gold, and dotted with tiniest seed pearls, were two initials; she did not need to bend forward to see what they were; she knew at the first glance, and with a deadly horror clutching at her heart, that these initials were "B. D."
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