- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XVIII. ONE WOMAN'S COURAGE.
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ONE WOMAN'S COURAGE.
JONAS WIGGINS did not go home as promptly as he had at first intended. Upon second thoughts, not entirely sober, he decided that it was too early, that he was giving Jane too much time.
"I can't set an' hear her clackin' all the evenin' an' half the night, too," he cogitated, "and I feel as if a little sort of soshibility 'd be comfortin' after my call on aristockrasy, an' the rest of it."
He left the woods; coming out from them at the foot of a little street which brought him soon into the heart, of Pomfret.
"I might jest as well look around a bit fer that carriage," he decided; "though I ain't no ways anxious fer her ter see me."
It was not long before he succeeded in this. Coming around a corner he saw the Beechwood carriage in the act of turning away from the door of Bruce Deering's lodgings, with Bruce himself, sitting opposite Mrs. Deering, and her husband by her side. The vehicle swung about quickly, and drove away, and he knew that the occupants could hardly have seen him.
"I wonder what that means?" he muttered; "I don't like the look. Looks as if she was goin' ter consult with that feller; umph!" grinning at a new mental suggestion, "maybe I'd do well ter consult the old feller!" And so musing he went his way.
Some hours later he appeared before Jane, quite mellowed and amiably voluble. He had taken matters out of her hands, and, having had his own way, found himself suddenly inclined to relate his experiences, colouring them somewhat, and retouching his own part of his interview with the lady of Beechwood so lavishly, as to arouse, upon the part of Jane, a somewhat unkindly scepticism. But he left a break in his highly coloured story. He utterly refused to confide to her the secret of the hiding-place of the amethyst button.
"'Tain't no use argyfyin' 'bout that," he assured her. "It's safe, an' that's enough!" And Jane, with an eye to future possibilities, should Jonas go successfully through with his second interview, desisted, and went to her pillows to ponder upon the chances of the morrow, and lay some plans of her own, dependent, more or less, upon the morrow's success.
Jonas remained at home until almost noon. Jane's over-night influence was still strong upon him, and she had convinced him, for the moment, that he would be wise to pay his second visit to Beechwood while sober and in his right mind.
"I'd give somethin' ter fuller him," mused Jane as she watched him | | 110 slouching townward. But, 'tain't no use; an' I don't 'spose I'll see him agin afore midnight, if he did promise to come right back, as soon as the things was settled. There's one comfort though: Jone's too stingy ter let them saloon fellers git much money out of him; he can stan' a heap o' treatin', but he ain't much on the treat."
But Jane was not destined to an afternoon of solitude. Less than an hour had passed, when the door was flung open, and Jonas fairly hurled himself across the threshold; his eyes were staring, his face purple with rage; and for some long moments his blatant noise filled the room and drowned her attempts at speech with an awful outpour of profanity intermingled with accusations and threats. The button! The button was gone!
As the hour appointed for the second visit of Jonas Wiggins drew near, things seemed to shape themselves as Brenda had wished they might, and feared they would not. Mr. Deering, by the doctor's orders, was to keep his room for a part of each day, sleeping as he could, and resting, in perfect quiet, if sleep refused to come to him. These hours of rest were taken directly after luncheon, and it had been Brenda's custom to remain with, or near him; sometimes she sat beside him with some bit of dainty needlework in her hand, while he lay with half-closed eyes, and soft words dropped from her lips, slowly, and at intervals; sometimes she wielded a great downy fan, and talked or read in low tones; but she seldom left him, save when he sank to sleep, lulled by her gentle ministrations, and this did not always happen.
On this day, however, Mr. Deering had fatigued himself before luncheon by his determined efforts to see that his beloved domain had been well cared for in his absence. He had visited stable, paddock, and garden; had walked about the grounds, including orchard and park, and had finished the morning closeted in his own especial sanctum with his nephew.
What passed between them was unknown, but they came forth to luncheon, the elder leaning upon the arm of the younger; both were grave, and one looked pale and weary, but there rested upon both faces a look of full confidence and mutual understanding.
"Brenda, my dear," said the elder man, as they took their places at the dainty table, "Bruce thinks I have been too active this morning, and I fancy he is right; at any rate, I feel as if I could fall asleep without an effort, and you need not sit with me to-day; instead, if you feel inclined, you might drive into town with Bruce, who thinks he must return at once; and you might bring Valentine back with you."
But Brenda had murmured an excuse. Mrs. Merton had not yet returned, and there was still much to look after; she and Sarita could find enough to do; besides, Mr. Baird had promised to bring Valentine home that evening; and would not Bruce remain longer? If not, Hall should drive him in and bring back the mail.
So it came about that Brenda sat alone, at the appointed hour, in the little reception room, fully decided as to the words she should say when Jonas Wiggins again confronted her. She would refer him to Bruce Deering—nothing more.| | 111
She had instructed the parlour-maid, who was to receive and admit the visitor, and she was a trifle surprised when Sarita opened the door, and said:
"Madam, here is a—a woman, who says she is expected," and she moved back to let the big figure of Jane Wiggins fill her place in the doorway.
At sight of the bold, coarse face, Brenda arose, her rook haughtily inquiring.
"Expected?" she echoed.
The woman made a stride forward.
"I'm Jonas Wiggins' wife," she announced with much deliberation.
Brenda turned toward Sarita with a quick gesture; "close the door," she said, and Sarita retired, softly and slowly, with her eyes fixed upon the strange visitor, until the door closed, shutting out her view of the tall figure in its shabby gown and bonnet.
Brenda did not resume her seat, nor did she ask the other to be seated. She only moved a step nearer the wife of Jonas Wiggins, saying:
"What is your errand, Mrs. Wiggins?"
It was utterly impossible to disguise or keep down the virago in Jane Wiggins; she was by nature a female bully, and, while she came before Brenda fully intent upon playing the part of virtue in distress, a reluctant intruder; the latter was too apt a reader of her sex to be, even for a moment, deceived.
"I've come, ma'am," began Jane, glibly, "on account of Mr. Wiggins; he ain't by no means well to-day, and he said as he had promised to call. You'd be sure to be expecting him, and so I must come in his place."
"I see!" quietly. "I suppose, then, you understand the nature of his business—his errand here?"
"Oh, yes'm, and I'm sure I hope you won't take no offence, ma'am, if I say that Jonas an' me didn't quite agree about that there button. Jonas was not thinkin' no harm, ma'am, when he come an' proposed what he did to you. He wanted to do you a favour, an', bein' a poor man that's met with a good deal of misfortin here and there, he thought it no harm to take a little gift like, an' that you'd feel more comfortable to have the button in your keepin'."
"One moment—" began Brenda, but the woman talked straight on.
"Ye see he hadn't spoke about it to me, an' kind o' come to you at first thought, without stoppin' to reckon much about the rights an' wrongs of it—"
"But when he come to tell me, I see at once it wouldn't do. 'Jonas,' I says, 'if that's jest somethin' the lady's lost, it's all right fur you to return it, and be paid fur your trouble. But if you think it has anything to do with the murder,'—in spite of herself Brenda shuddered at the word,—'you ain't no right to give it to no one exceptin' the sheriff.'"
Brenda could hardly restrain a start, and, now that the woman had paused for a word from her, she could only say at the moment:
"Well," repeated Jane, catching up the word, "after some con- | | 112 siderin' we've concluded that we'd try a kind of compermise. Since he's thought it over, Jonas feels jest the same as I do. It ain't right to give that button up to anyone, except as I've mentioned, and we know that we're likely to git ourselves into trouble if we was to keep it an' not let on. Sech things leak out mostly, some time or ruther. But we want to do you a sarvice if we can."
"I shall be glad to learn," broke in Brenda, with a ring of impatience in her voice, "how you propose to do it."
"Well, ma'am, I'll tell ye, an' this is Jonas's offer as well as mine. He told ye, he says, that we wanted to go away from Pomfret, and was too poor to see any way of goin'. And while we can't feel it jest right ter give ye the button, we might, ter serve ye, jest keep it out of the way of anybody else; d'ye see?"
"No," said Brenda, coldly, "I do not."
"Well, we won't give it up, and we won't keep it. An' this is Mr. Wiggins's offer. He'll take that button an' hide it som'ers, an' we'll both swear not to tell, an' not to dig it up, an' we'll go off clear away from Pomfret an' never come back, an' mighty glad to do it too; an' when this trouble is all blowed over, so't won't do no harm, Jone'll write an' tell ye where he hid the button, and ye can git it if ye think fit."
Jane had grown more and more engrossed in her own wordy effort, and had failed to note what would have been patent to anyone who had ever seen Brenda Deering in a "noble rage," and she took fresh heart of grace, when the other said very quietly:
"And what is to be your reward?"
"Reward! Why, I thought you an' Jonas had settled all that. I should think it 'ud be worth a good many hundred dollars to have that there button with yer own 'nitials on it kept out of the court, an' stopped from figuring in a murder trial?"
All unwittingly, Jane had applied her last straw. Brenda swept toward the door, and, standing beside it, turned half-way back.
"If you have no further kindly suggestions to offer, perhaps you will charge yourself with a short message to Jonas Wiggins. Tell him that I will have nothing whatever to do with this business. It in no way concerns me. If he thinks it will interest Mr. Bruce Deering he would better apply to him with this fine and exceedingly conscientious proposal. And tell him once more what I assured him of yesterday if he ever approaches me again, annoys me in any manner, or allows a whisper of this to go abroad, he shall be arrested for blackmailing, and worse. I do not believe his tale of finding that button, or that he obtained it honestly. She had struck the bell while uttering this final sentence, and with the last word she flung the door wide open. Instantly the dog Samson bounded to her side; and as she stepped across the threshold, with erect head and flashing eyes, the man Robbins came hurrying toward her.
"Robbins," she said, without a backward glance, "show this person out."
Alone in her room but a moment later, Brenda Deering paced its length with burning eyes and checks, and lips firmly, yes, stubbornly compressed.| | 113
"I will not submit to it," she whispered between sharp breaths; "I will not so humiliate myself. Let what will come of it! The fault is not mine! The crime shall rest where it belongs. I wash my hands of all."
She was not lacking in courage and mental force, and she moved swiftly about the room, preparing by the use of cool and odorous waters, freely dashed upon a burning face, to meet her husband, with the outward signs of the emotion that had so lately swayed her, and which still raged within, obliterated. She had passed through a day and night of horror, had been beset by doubts, fears, and terrors; but from it all she had arisen with a mind cleared, and the knowledge that, for her, but one way was possible. She could not deal with those people, neither to save herself or another; and she knew that henceforward for many days, perhaps for always, she must live in suspense if not in danger; must carry in her heart a fear and dread unutterable, and never, through all, must that heart be betrayed by her face.
Ah! Brenda Deering, would your courage have failed you had you but known what the near future had in store?
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