- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XV. HELD IN CHECK.
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HELD IN CHECK.
FOR a long moment, Brenda sat like a frozen image of horror, then the man drew back and coolly replaced the dainty bauble in his dingy waistcoat pocket.
To her dying day, let it come never so late, Brenda Deering will not forget those awful first moments. But she was made of a fibre as strong as it was fine; born of brave blood, and schooled to self-control.| | 96
The man seemed gloating over his momentary triumph, and in no haste to break the spell of horror he had woven about this fair proud woman. It was Brenda, at last, who broke the silence. She was pallid still, and still inwardly horror-stricken, but, after that first moment of absolute panic, her thoughts had travelled fast. Lifting her eyes to his face, she questioned him with absolute haughtiness.
"Do you mean to tell me," she began, "that Bruce Deering sent you here—to me?"
He was not prepared for this question, and she saw his hesitation.
"You had better not say yes," she said coldly. "For it will not be the truth!"
Still Wiggins hesitated.
"My servant," she went on, "spoke of a letter. Did you bring me a letter?"
The scoundrel pulled himself together.
"I reckon he fancied this 'ere," tapping his pocket, "was letter enough."
"That!" with a curl of the lip. "What has that to do with Bruce Deering?"
The man stared in astonishment.
"Do you mean to say"—he began vehemently—"do you mean ter say that that 'ere button didn't belong ter Bruce Deerin'?"
"Certainly I do not; but why should you fancy it was his? And why do you bring it here to me?"
"Because," he took the button from his pocket again, and held it up before her eyes, "see! There's his initials. Do ye really mean that it never was his?"
"I never saw him wear such a thing. But—" she hesitated a moment, "if it is his, he would, of course, have its mate. It looks more like a woman's ornament."
"Oh! It does?" mockingly. "Then maybe it belongs to you. B. D.—that stands fer your name too, I reckon."
"You villain!" she was on her feet again. "Do not dare to address such words to me! Why do you come here—to me—with that thing? which you may, or may not, have picked up at the door of the bank! Why have you pushed yourself into my presence, through the use of a friend's name? If you can trace any connection between that bauble and myself, do it, and clear yourself of a charge of imposture, of a charge of blackmail, or its attempt!"
Wiggins gazed at her with amazement, not unmixed with admiration, for a spirit and courage which even he could recognise. How often since this bit of carved and jewelled stone came into his hands had he rehearsed this interview, as he had been so certain it must be. At first he had meant to take the button to Bruce Deering, and to say, "See, I found this so and so; it is the last and strongest link in a long chain of circumstantial evidence; what is it worth to you?" And then—it was the old story—the woman had persuaded him.
"Now, Jone Wiggins," she had said to him in her most emphatic idiom, "don't be a bigger donkey than ye kin help. Say ye go to this young feller jest as ye've pictured. Ye'll have ter go alone, of course. Well, he's big and strong, and ye say he's killed one man, an' | | 97 that he's got a temper like a reglar catamount. Wal, when you've made yer little speech, what's to hender him from jest naterally tearin' you to pieces, an' sarve ye right too fer bein' sich a fool, an' a takin' the thing away from ye, an' kickin' what's left of ye into the street. Tell me that? 'Sides, how much money has he got anyhow? Now you listen to my plan." And he did listen.
They must go to the woman with their bit of convincing proof.
"At any rate, she can't lick ye, nor kill ye, nor rob ye; an' that ain't all! Them 'nitials are her'n as well as his'n. Can't ye see the point? She's got money of her own; and d'ye 'spose she's goin' to let that proud husban' of her's get a chance to suspicion her anyhow? You jest leave it ter me, Jone Wiggins, an' we'll be better off by a good many hundred dollars, as easy as nothin'. I'll go up ter Beechwood, and ye'll see how I'll bring my fine lady ter book!" And then she had rehearsed the arguments she would use to bring about this desired result.
Well, he had listened to Jane, and then had tried to improve upon her plan; and here he stood face to face with a defying lioness, menaced by a huge and dangerous animal; and all his daring, defiant, and convincing arguments had flown, together with the first exhilarating effects of his frequent draughts from the now empty flask. Besides, she had in the very beginning entangled him, caused him to trip and to contradict himself, almost to convict himself of falsehood.
He had meant to approach her as a messenger from Bruce Deering, and then Jane's suggestive, "Them 'nitials are her'n as well as his'n," had filled his mind with other and richer possibilities. Why not assume to believe the button to be hers? Hesitating between the two plans, deciding with difficulty, and aided by the flask, he had slept, at last, upon his decision; had awakened refreshed, and set off upon his enterprise, with the words that were to startle, daunt, and overwhelm the lady of Beechwood fairly quivering upon his lips.
And now!—the words had escaped somehow, and he stood there, uneasy, almost sheepish in his momentary stupidity, and utterly at a loss.
All this had flashed through his mind as she spoke, and during the long moment of silence, in which she stood, her head thrown back, looking at him with scorn in her level eyes.
"If you have finished your errand," she said, as he stood awkward and angry, and mentally floundering for the right word or a way to begin again, "I will ring for someone to see you safely out; my dog does not seem friendly to you."
As she spoke, the dog, hitherto quiet, gave a low growl, and, at the sound, Jonas found his tongue. It had suddenly occurred to him that, after all, his wife's plan might be best. At least, it had the merit of simplicity and plain speaking, and must soon bring about a climax—of some sort.
"I've got a few words more to say, ma'am," he began glumly; "I'm a poor man, an' I've got a fambly ter take care of, an' when I found this 'ere button it occurred ter me that it might be worth somethin' ter you; of course, I don't say it was dropped by the m—the person that killed Joe Matchin; but, bein' found right there, it might been kind of embarrassin', if it was brought inter court. Don't ye think so?"| | 98
"Go on," she commanded, ignoring his question.
"Of course ye might easily have dropped the thing sometime when ye was callin' ter the bank; that's nacheral enough. But, don't ye see, that if it was to turn out to be yourn or Bruce Deerin's, it would make a lot of talk; an' if I was ter let on how I found it, an' when, an' whar, it would jest clinch his case—unless it was proved to be your'n."
"If it was your'n? Wal, then, it would make it worse fer ye both." He stopped short, the thought that suddenly sprang up in his evil brain was none of his, nor could it have been, scoundrel though he was; such a thought could only have sprung from the mind of a woman lost to her womanhood, and steeped in evil, as the sot is steeped in wine. "If it's your'n—there's them that might say that ye was claimin' it to screen Bruce Deerin', fer there's plenty to think it's pretty nacheral fer a hansum young woman, that's got an old husband, ter try an' save a good-looking young man, an' keep him right in the fambly. I ain't sayin' this is so, ye know; only, it might look that way, don't ye see?"
What was it that sent the haughty blood, which had flown to Brenda Deering's face when she arose and defied him, back to her heart again? Why did she stand there silent and let this man speak on? He had paused for a moment, but began again, with more confidence and a rising sense of elation.
"Ye can see fer yerself how it would look; an' then there's the old man—" He paused again, and again took the button from his pocket. "I'm a poor man, ma'am," he resumed with a fair imitation of the street mendicant's whine; "an' my wife an' me are gettin' on in years. This 'ere that I've found is of some valley, an' anyone that returns it ort to have some sort of reward. Le's put it that way; my wife an' me's tired of Pomfret. We want ter git out of it. Couldn't ye jest name a sum that'd take us away, say ter Calaforny or Texas, an' help us ter live thar kind a half-way easy, an'—this 'ere button's yours. An' Mr. Bruce Deerin' won't have it ter buck against when he comes ter be tried, nor your name won't be rung in no way ter raise trubble in the fambly."
During this speech Brenda Deering's whole manner bad changed. She still held herself erect and outwardly calm, but the haughtiness was gone; she was pallid still, and seemed hardly to listen to his last few sentences; her eyes were turned away, and she seemed pondering some new and important question.
When Jonas ceased speaking, she continued to stand with compressed lips and eyes fixed upon vacancy, until, having "said his say," and being ill at ease, he began to shuffle his feet and cough ostentatiously behind his hand, upon which the big dog lifted his head and growled again. At this Brenda roused herself, and one who knew her well might have detected a sudden alertness in her face, voice, and manner.
"Do I understand you then, that you wish to sell me this jewel?" she asked.
Wiggins looked at her keenly from under his bent and lowering brows; he had been quick to perceive her first terror, and he was not | | 99 slow to note the new change, but he did not understand it. He could not read a woman like this. She puzzled and she awed him—him! Jonas Wiggins! who had never known what it was to fear or to respect a woman! He wondered what she was about to say, and he no longer felt sure of the result of his mission.
"To return it," he amended, after a moment's reflection; "'twould sound best so, ma'am, and you jest to reward me."
Her lip curled as she asked:
"And what sum would you call a sufficient reward?"
"I shouldn't like ter set no price to a generous lady that's rich enough ter make a poor man comfortable fer life an' not feel it," he modestly hazarded.
She came a step nearer.
"Listen to me," she said, and her cold clear tone, with neither fear nor hesitation in it, was not encouraging; "I have just this to say to you, and when I have said it, there will be no further parley. That jewel, which you claim to have found, is not mine, nor have I any desire to possess it. Whether it belongs to Bruce Deering or not, I am unable to say; but—if it does, or ever did, belong to him, you never found it as you say. Bruce Deering comes of a race of honest high-souled men. And none of the name of Deering ever yet forgot his honour, or dipped his hand in blood. He is innocent of the murder of that old man, and needs no aid from you, or from me, to prove his innocence! I will not pay you one dollar to purchase that trifle upon his account. Wait!" as her visitor seemed about to speak. "There is one thing you have not thought of: I have a husband who, at this time, is in a critical state of health, and who must be kept, as much as possible, from shock and annoyance. To know that you, or anyone, might bring forward, and publicly question the ownership of such a bauble as that, bearing, as it does, the two initials of my name, would annoy him exceedingly. For this reason, and for no other, I make you this proposition. But, first, tell me the truth; does anyone know that you have this button? anyone, mind!"
"I ain't sech a fool as that," declared the man bluntly. "Time enough to tell about it when you've druv me to do it."
"By refusing to deal with you?"
"Jes' so, ma'am."
"Very good; now listen. You are to go away now, and, in the meantime, keep this matter to yourself as before. And to-morrow—at this same hour, we will say—you will come back for my answer, and—your reward. I must have time to consider, and—to go to town. Ladies do not usually keep large sums of money by them. Do you agree to this?"
The scoundrel hesitated.
"If I don't—what then?" he hazarded.
"If you do not, I shall ring that bell and have you escorted to town, and delivered over as a blackmailer; and I shall claim that bauble as the recognised property of a friend who is far away from Pomfret; and who will accept the word of a man like you, as against mine?"
"Ye will!" he fairly hissed, his face darkening with rage and dis- | | 100 appointment. "An' that's how fine ladies does business on the square, is it!"
"Spare your words," she replied icily. "I am dealing with you in the fashion you can best understand. Decide, and at once. Do you choose my terms, or arrest and the tender mercies of the police? And remember. This must be kept behind closed lips. Otherwise—you understand." She turned and moved a step toward the door. "I can spare you no more time," she said. "Shall I ring?—or—"
"Wait!" he interposed. "If I wait—if I come to-morrer, what then?"
"You will have my answer—then."
"And you pay me for the button?"
"If I take it, I pay you—liberally."
"An'—if yer don't?"
"If I do not—you are at liberty to dispose of it in any way you please."
He caught up the battered hat, which, since his entrance, had rested upon the floor.
"'Tain't what I expected from a lady like you," he muttered; "but I'll wait; I'll come to-morrer at, say—"
"At four o'clock precisely," she cut in. "Come, Samson."
The great dog sprang to her side; she rang the bell, and, without a further glance toward him, awaited the prompt servant.
"See this person outside the gates," she commanded;" Samson seems a trifle cross."
Five minutes later Jonas Wiggins is moving slowly townward, neither richer, nor wiser, than when he came; and not half so well satisfied with his own diplomacy as he had been an hour earlier in the day.
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