- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XVI. "WARNED."
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BRENDA DEERING stood at the doorway of the little reception room until she saw her uncouth visitor pass from her sight down the steps of the outer vestibule, and then she went, still with firm step and proudly lifted head, down the wide hall to the dining-room, where Sarita at the open door greeted her volubly.
"Ah, madam! But this was too much! You, so weary already, to have to listen so long to some beggar's tale. Your heart is too good, indeed it is! And madam is paler than before!"
"Nonsense, Sarita," replied her mistress. "I have only heard the man's story, and sent him away with a promise to consider his case. He did smell of brandy, however—or beer. I am going to town, Sarita, and I may bring Mr. Deering home. Possibly his nephew also. Order the carriage for me. I shall dress at once." And she swept on and up the stately wide-curving staircase.
"Lay out my grey dress, Judith," she said to the maid who sat sewing in a little curtained corner of her dressing-room, "and then go | | 101 down and unpack the case with my linen in it. See if things are ready for the laundry, and, if so, put them in the baskets. Then you may help Sarita, if she needs you." She was still calm, and still pale, and so she remained until the girl had passed out and she had turned the keys in both the dressing-room doors. Then she threw herself down upon a low couch, uttered a smothered groan, and fell to trembling violently, ending with a wild burst of tears, in the midst of which she sprang up and began to move about the room hastily.
"This is no time for crying," she muttered between lips that were struggling for firmness; "I must not give up yet! Oh, how thankful I am for the strength which held out against that awful, that terrible man! And now I must be still stronger, firmer yet! and in the face of—what! Oh, if I could know! If I could KNOW!"
Then, much as she had stood, in the presence of Jonas Wiggins, she stood again beside her dainty dressing-table, staring into vacancy, and striving to master the mental and physical tumult into which his visit had thrown her; and soon, outwardly calm once more, but with a look in the beautiful eyes that was almost one of terror, she crossed the room and sat down before a dainty writing-table.
"It's the only way," she murmured, "and there is not a moment to lose."
Taking up a pen, she selected, after a moment of search, a plain sheet of note-paper with an envelope to match, and began to write as follows:—
No matter what your reluctance or your scruples may be, you must give me an opportunity to see you immediately. I have that to say which concerns both you and myself. It is vital. I shall follow this note in half-an-hour. Do you be ready to drive with me to Beechwood, where you must dine. You must judge the urgency of this request by the name of her who makes it."BRENDA D——"
Bruce Deering was sitting in his hired apartments conversing in a listless fashion, which he was vainly trying to make more interested and interesting, while Mr. Arden and John Redding each manfully sustained a large part in a prolonged chat, which must needs avoid the very topics of paramount interest to each and constantly present in the minds of all.
Since the moment when the four men in Banker Baird's library had read the hastily written warning of Detective Murtagh, three long hours had elapsed, and Bruce Deering had not been alone, save for the first fifteen minutes, during which the four men had planned their visiting campaign, and Mr. Baird had planned for the comfort, such as it might be, of his invalid partner and guest, and had then taken his way to young Deering's quarters.
He had talked cheerily upon general topics, and had accepted Deering's half-hesitating invitation to lunch with him—a little to that young man's surprise—and then he had lingered, for another half-hour, until the entrance of Mr. Arden and John Redding—the latter wisely recruited by the sage clergyman as being the very man best fitted to aid in this case, and, as the dominie daringly plagiarised, "a very pleasant help in time of trouble."| | 102
According to the prearranged programme, it was to be Lysander Deering in person, who, in the course of an afternoon drive, should call upon his nephew, and, if possible, carry him off for as long an outing as was practicable or wise for the invalid.
The hour for this latest arrival to appear and relieve the clergyman and his supporter was fast approaching, when a knock, sharp and short, took young Deering promptly to his door, where he stood for a moment, his back squarely turned toward his visitors, eyeing something which had been handed in to him by an invisible and swiftly departing messenger.
"Excuse me," he said, after he had bethought himself to close the door, "I have some sort of message from—from Beechwood, I think. With your permission I will read it." And he crossed the room and stood beside a sunny window, his face still more than half turned away. As he read, a flush mounted to his cheek and forehead; and when he had finished the note, he still stood for a moment beside the window, as if forgetful of any presence save his own. Then, slowly, and without turning, he lifted to his lips the half-smoked cigar he had removed from between them upon going to open the door, and drew two or three deep inhalations.
When the weed began to glow brightly, he held up the note by one twisted corner, lighted it with careful puffs, and watched it drop to ashes upon the window sill. Then he went back to his guests.
"It's a word from Beechwood," he said with assumed carelessness.
"They insist upon my coming to dinner; therefore—I suppose I must dine."
The two callers exchanged quick glances. They interpreted this as being Lysander Deering's method of getting possession of his nephew, and of keeping him, for a few hours, out of danger; and they were not greatly surprised when, shortly after the arrival of the note, Mrs. Deering's carriage halted in the street below, and in it sat the lady herself, with the master of Beechwood beside her.
The appearance of the Deering servant at the door was the signal for their release from duty, and they went away, pausing beside the carriage for a few words of friendly greeting, and nodding as they turned away, after each had bestowed a quick and admiring glance upon the tall young man, gentleman every inch of him, who came hurriedly out to the carriage in correct though hastily donned dinner dress, his head erect, his eyes level and clear, handsome and calmly indifferent to the gaze of the passers-by, as he seated himself opposite his uncle's wife and took the hand she quickly extended in greeting.
"Jove!" ejaculated honest John Redding, as he turned away, "could anyone look at that man and call, or think, him a felon?"
"Nevertheless," quoth the clergyman, "it has been thought and said."
"Yes," replied Redding, with a sniff of contempt; "thought and said—and by, whom?"
When Brenda Deering had appeared at Mr. Baird's and announced herself as come to take away the master of Beechwood, that good man had played into her hands promptly and unconsciously. She had | | 103 found the two partners together in the library, Valentine Rodney being closeted with Mrs. Baird, in that lady's especial snuggery, on an upper floor.
"I am glad you are come for me, Brenda," her husband said at once. "Mr. Baird has placed his horses at my disposal, but I think this is best. The fact is, I want to entrap Bruce into going home with us to dine, and I think you maybe an able second." And then, before she could answer, "Why, we shall be too strong to resist, really! Valentine is here; we must take her with us."
"Valentine!" Brenda started slightly; she had not counted upon this.
"Miss Wardell was suddenly called from home," explained Mr. Baird. "Miss Rodney came to us this morning."
Brenda was again mistress of herself. "So much the better," she said, smiling; "Bruce can hardly refuse us altogether."
But Valentine had her word to say, when Brenda sought her, a few moments later, in the "snuggery;" and told her how they meant to beguile Bruce Deering out of his retreat in spite of himself.
"You'll hardly need me, Brenda," she remonstrated, looking away from her friend and flushing and paling as she spoke. "And, indeed, I'd rather not go now. Besides, I have promised to drive Mrs. Baird out to the farm in a short time. One of the men has gone away unexpectedly, and you know she does not like to drive the ponies."
It was a silent party that drove toward Beechwood. Bruce Deering was grave, and left the conversation, such as it was, to be carried on by the others. Brenda was pre-occupied, and her husband, after a brief attempt at cheerfulness, was forced to admit that the day had been a fatiguing one, and that he should be glad to be at home once more, and to rest. He had seated himself in the carriage quite in his old way, erect and dignified, and had so held himself, while they were driving through the streets of Pomfret, bowing here and there in his habitual stately fashion; but when they were fairly out of the town, with its people and its houses behind them, he dropped back upon the cushions and let the weariness creep into his face, and speak in his voice, as he said:
"I want another talk with you, Bruce, quite by ourselves, if Brenda will permit it; but I must rest a little first. We shall have an hour or more before dinner, and I shall leave you to Brenda until then. After dinner we will reverse the programme."
And so it was that Bruce Deering found himself in the Beechwood library, and face to face with his uncle's wife, less than six hours after Jonas Wiggins had turned away from this same stately threshold.
The room was large and splendid, without being cold; its long windows faced the western sunset, and its deep greens, rich bronze, and mellow old oak, were enriched and vivified by the long lances of the late sunset, gleaming through two great windows, upon walls and hangings, busts and books, and classic panellings."
It was toward one of these windows that Brenda walked upon entering the room where Bruce awaited her. It was the farthest point from either of the three doors, which opened respectively upon the | | 104 wide hall, just opposite the drawing-room upon the right, and the breakfast-room upon the left.
"Will you come here?" she said, as he arose and stood as if half in doubt whether he should follow or not. "It is the most remote from any possible point where one might be overheard; not that I fear eavesdropping, but because what I have to say must be said with utmost caution." There was a strange look upon her face, a strange tremor in her voice, and, as he came closer and at last stood in the window and confronted her squarely, her look caused him to start and exclaim eagerly:
"Brenda! What is it? Something has happened! Something serious! There has been some awful strain put upon you! What is it? Speak—for your own sake; let me help you—at least—"
"Help me! Bruce—if you can help yourself—if we can help each other!" She was trembling as if with an ague, and he turned suddenly, drew forward a low, softly-cushioned chair, and gently placed her in it.
"Brenda," he said quite firmly now, "if you lose your self-control you will be ill; you look faint already. If, as you intimate, what you wish to say concerns me, do not hesitate, thinking to spare me—anything! If it is a trouble of yours, you know there is nothing I would not do for you—to serve or help—"
She put out her hand suddenly; she was very pale now, but calmer, and she met his eyes and seemed to hold them with her own.
"Bruce, promise to answer my questions first, and to ask none of me; we must not remain here like this too long. And, Bruce, don't misunderstand whatever I may say! We have been friends, you and I, since I was a child almost, and you a big schoolboy."
"Yes, Brenda. And—is there a shadow between us now?"
He came closer, and his eyes challenged hers. She read their meaning for a moment. Then suddenly she averted her face.
"I will answer that," she said gently, "when you have answered my questions,—and—have heard what I am about to say. Perhaps—then—it will be you who will ask—questions—of me."
"Brenda, for heaven's sake, explain yourself!"
She drew herself erect in the low seat where he had placed her. "I will," she said, and suddenly threw back the soft lace scarf which had been loosely draped about her shoulders, leaving exposed the simple daintiness of the smooth-fitting bodice of her dinner gown, soft and white, and quite unadorned, save for the jewel which caught together some tiny folds at the throat.
"Bruce," she said again, placing a finger upon this jewelled ornament, "look at this." She arose and stood before him, and he bent to examine the jewel.
"Why—" He started back and a puzzled look crossed his face."
"Why, that is—"
"This!" she broke in almost breathlessly, as if determined, at last, to have all said—" this, Bruce Deering, is the counterpart of a jewel, a button, which was found upon the scene of Joseph Matchin's murder on that very night!"
"God!" And now both faces are deadly pale, and they confront | | 105 each other, he staring horrified. Then—suddenly the man starts back, utters a sharp ejaculation, and the red blood comes back and dyes his face, neck, and brow; his hands clench themselves, his eyes flash fire into hers. He comes close beside her and looks straight down into the eyes that must lift themselves to meet his gaze, so close he stands, towering above her.
"Brenda Deering!" he says between set teeth, "why have you thought fit—to tell me this—as you have told it?"
And, suddenly, so strange is woman, her face changes, her voice trembles, and two tears start from her eyes, and hang upon her lashes, as she answers him.
"Because—Bruce Deering, I feared that, unless you were warned, the mate to that button might be found in your possession."
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